Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on Google+Share on LinkedInEmail this to someone

One of the few bright spots in the crippling disaster that was Hurricane Katrina back in 2005 was the award-winning photograph* of United States Air Force Master Sergeant Mike Maroney embracing LaShay Brown, an adorable little girl he just saved.

It’s the unforgettable hug in the photograph above.

And if you thought millions of people around the world loved it, you’re right, but it meant even more to Maroney himself.

After the hurricane he, a pararescuer or “PJ”, was deployed overseas to both Iraq and Afghanistan, and kept the image with him through every tour. A decade after the hug, in 2015, they were reunited on the set of a television show where Maroney confessed to Brown “you rescued me more than I rescued you.”

Incredibly, ever since, the two have kept in touch. They even speak on the phone on a weekly basis.

Recently, Brown (mostly because of Maroney’s influence) has decided to join the Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps at her high school in Waveland, Mississippi.

And … the JROTC is having a ball soon, and guess who’s showing up to be Brown’s date?

Maroney, himself. Of course.

“I knew if I joined [the JROTC] I would have help from Mike along the way if I needed it, or was confused about anything,” Brown told PEOPLE.

The PJ said the decision to go to the event was obviously a no-brainer.

“I’m going because I would do anything to repay the hug to LaShay and her family. They mean as much to me as my own,” he said.

Maroney plans on retiring from the USAF later this month.

  • – The photograph was taken by Airman 1st Class Veronica Pierce