Rescue Reunion

  • Published
  • By Airman Magazine Staff
  • Airman Magazine

A small girl’s smile and hug, which her rescuer later recalled as “a tsunami of greatness,” was what the pararescueman remembered the most from his part of the New Orleans rescue effort after Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

“(I) picked up the cutest, little girl today. She gave me the biggest hug, and I melted,” Master Sgt. Michael Maroney, a pararescueman with the 58th Rescue Squadron at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada, wrote in his journal on Sept. 6, 2005.

The child’s hug remained in Maroney’s memory for the next decade, until, just a couple of days before the 10-year anniversary of Katrina, he had the name to attach to it. About two weeks later, the girl herself joined him on a daytime TV talk show stage in Los Angeles. LaShay Brown, now 13, several feet taller and without the pigtails shown in a viral photo of her hugging her rescuer, initially kept her emotions in check when she first took her seat on “The Real” set next to Mahoney.

Then Maroney told her and the studio audience how a hug LaShay doesn’t even remember gave him renewed strength to continue the rescue effort in New Orleans after the Aug. 29, 2005 hurricane. Tears welled in the young girl’s eyes when Maroney told her, “You rescued me more than I rescued you.”

“I want to say thank you for saving me and my family,” LaShay told him.

LaShay was only one of about 140 people Mahoney rescued after the hurricane. For much of the past decade, he tried to relocate the young girl who had inspired him through some of the darkest and most desperate work of his 19-year career.

In August, he finally found her, through an Instagram message from a friend of LaShay’s, to his son Christopher. A few weeks later, Maroney saw them for the first time since September 2005 on “The Real.” The appearance helped Maroney fulfill his wish to help the family after the show gave them a  $10,000 check. Shawntrell Brown, LaShay’s mother, reciprocated by turning down an offer of a car, so he could also receive $10,000. Three days later, he and his sons drove to Waveland, Mississippi, about an hour from New Orleans, where the family now lives.

The weekend began with Maroney receiving honorary citizenship from Waveland Mayor Mike Smith, followed by a fishing trip with LaShay and Shawntrell in Bay St. Louis on a boat chartered by Mississippi State Rep. David Baria. The following day, they enjoyed another day on the water at Ship Island Excursions in nearby Gulfport. Maroney also spent a few hours returning to New Orleans for the first time since Katrina and talked to downtown residents to locate the area where he rescued the family.

While LaShay’s mother was shocked that Maroney spent almost a decade looking for them, she didn’t seem surprised that her daughter’s response to the rescue had a comforting effect on the pararescueman. She’d seen LaShay do that for several family members during times when they needed it the most, beginning with her aunt, one of the family members who Maroney rescued that day. Ashley Brown, who later died in 2012, was afraid to go to the hospital, but LaShay gave her the same smile and told her the same words she said to her mother on the helicopter, “It’s going to be OK.”

“I’d already known she was special from that day,” she said. “But when I heard him say that on the show, he was saying she was his hero after everything he’d done. Until he said that about LaShay and her smile and hug, I never knew that could mean so much to a person.”

For Shawntrell, the last few days of August and first week of September in 2005 was particularly a frightening time, beginning with the hurricane and her family’s forced evacuation from their home. Then, the Air Force pararescueman stepped into their lives for a few pivotal minutes, as he hoisted them into his HH-60G Pave Hawk. As Maroney ascended with LaShay on the hoist, she pointed out her home and school from the air. Once in the helicopter, LaShay consoled her mother, who was frightened of the helicopter, by rubbing her back and telling her, “It’s OK, mom. We’re safe now.”

Once the Pave Hawk delivered LaShay and her family to the Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport, where they eventually were evacuated to a Tennessee shelter. Maroney never asked her name, but also never forgot her smile or the unbridled joy she showed in the midst of all of the turmoil and tragedy. Tech. Sgt. Veronica Pierce, now the 70th Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance Wing public affairs at Fort Meade, Maryland, took the photo of Maroney and LaShay that remained on the wall in his home. Even if the reunion never happened, the photo would be the one he would want to sum up his career.

Just a couple of months before Katrina, Maroney had returned from a deployment to Afghanistan, where he and his fellow pararescuemen picked up nothing but bodies for 22 days. By the time he’d found the girl’s family, he’d experienced similar emotions as he tried to find people he could save, especially on that particular day.

Then came the rescue that stood out in his memory more than the 20 other people he saved on that day. The child’s smile and hug she gave him was the one moment that gave him the strength to keep going. If a 3-year-old child could retain her smile after surviving the costliest natural disaster to hit the United States and her family’s forced evacuation from their home, Maroney told himself, he could certainly summon the strength to continue the rescue effort.

“For me, that picture is her smile, and the embrace she gave me was enough to refill my tank, and we went back out and began picking up more people,” Maroney said. “On that day, it was exactly what I needed.”

Now that they’ve finally connected, both families plan to stay in touch. Even though the reunion took a decade to happen, Maroney believes it happened at the right time. He’s facing the end of a career he loves, as injuries to his back and shoulder, along with post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury, have led to a pending medical retirement, which he continues to work on at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland, Texas, while he trains aspiring pararescuemen.

“In my line of work, you don’t get a lot of thank-yous,” Maroney said. “Her hug and her smile was the world hugging me back and saying, ‘Thank you.’

“Nothing I do will ever be thank you enough, to be reunited with them, for it to come full circle and find out what happened, to see that they’re doing all right, and that she’s a happy, young lady. That means everything. Here’s my win, that people do survive, and I really needed that, especially at this point of my life. I feel this was her telling me everything is going to be all right.”

That realization in the middle of a hurricane’s horror was how one child’s smile became a “tsunami of greatness” in the mind of a 19-year pararescueman.