Master Sergeant Mike Maroney has kept a certain picture on his wall over the past 10 years – that of himself and a little girl he delivered to safety during Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
As the poignant photo of the twosome hugging swept the nation, so did Mike’s search for the happy girl and her family.
After PEOPLE broke the news earlier this month that Maroney had ultimately found his “Katrina Girl” (her name is LeShay Brown), the pair finally reunited during an emotional taping of The Real on Tuesday.
Maroney first explained to the show’s hosts why LeShay’s hug had inspired him so much, saying, “If she’s strong enough to handle this, I can handle this.” Then, the 19-year pararescue jumper was finally “re-introduced” to the girl who changed his life all those years ago.
After taking a moment to finally embrace again, Maroney told a choked up LeShay, “I wish I could explain to you how important your hug was. Your small gesture helped me through a dark phase. You rescued me more than I rescued you.”
Unfortunately, both families have hit hard times since Katrina (Maroney is injured and therefore cannot currently serve), so the pair was shocked and overjoyed when the hosts presented each family with a $10,000 check.
Speaking to PEOPLE exclusively after their meeting, LeShay (who doesn’t remember much from the actual rescue), said that what Mike told her “really means a lot.” Her mother, Shawntrell Brown, said, “I remember Mike was a nice man then, and he’s such a nice man now.”
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SOURCE: PEOPLE, Becky Randel