Ten years ago, Staff Sgt. Mike Maroney hovered over a maelstrom of water, debris and human suffering. New Orleans, a once vibrant mecca for revelers and tourists, was ground zero for impoverished refugees in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.
By Sept. 6, 2005, Maroney said he had become depressed and felt detached from the city’s suffering. He had spent the previous six days caring for coma victims, families with no place to go and refugee drop-offs at the Federal Emergency Management Agency camp at the Louis Armstrong Airport.
Maroney, then a helicopter pararescue specialist with the 66th Rescue Squadron at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada, said he was overwhelmed with the human condition. It reminded him of a deployment to Afghanistan.
“I had come back from a bad deployment, real bad," he said. ”We didn’t pick up anyone alive.”
On day seven of the Katrina mission, Maroney saw a family on the roof of their home flagging for help. Strapped in and ready to go, he was lowered from his rescue helicopter to the rooftop. What he did not know was 3-year-old LeShay Brown would lift his spirits higher than a helicopter.
The little girl wrapped herself around him as he began to pull her to safety. Piercing the fog of his deployment, and this mission, was Brown’s bright smile, he said.
Once in the helicopter, the frightened little girl kept holding onto him. A combat photographer captured the moment, which became a symbol to the country of heroism amidst devastating circumstances. To Maroney, the moment carried much more meaning.
“When we were going to drop her off she wrapped me in a hug … that hug was everything. Time stopped," Maroney said. "Words fail to express what that hug means to me.”
The rescue team eventually delivered Brown and her family safely to the FEMA camp. Although Maroney and the Browns went their separate ways, every year around Sept. 6 Maroney would think about the little girl who had hugged away his burden. Where was she? How was she doing?
In 2010, Maroney decided he had to find the little girl who saved him.
He did not know her name, where she went after Katrina or anything else about her. He turned to social media hoping to find help.
"Every year around the anniversary I would post it (the now famous photo) asking if anyone knew her or if anyone recognized her,” he said.
Then last year, help came from Michigan high schooler Andrew Goard who coined the name “Katrina Girl” after messaging Maroney about her.
“He said helping me was his mission, and he blasted everything on social media. I went from a couple hundred likes to thousands," Maroney said. "I went on every talk show there is, telling my story.”
The viral hashtag, #findkatrinagirl, formed by Goard had started a nationwide search.
“A couple months ago my son got an Instagram message from one of Brown's friends. They had moved to Tennessee and she kept the same smile as in the picture,” Maroney said.
After verifying the identity of Brown, his “Katrina Girl,” he said he was dazed and nervous. “I waited a day to text them.”
When he finally contacted the family, he and Brown's mother talked about the family's time during Katrina and the years after.
“When I had pulled them out they had gone five days without food,” Maroney said.
After being dropped off at the FEMA camp, the Browns were moved to Memphis, Tennessee. They eventually returned to New Orleans and have since moved to Waveland, Mississippi.
Finally, they talked about a reunion. Thanks to the talk show “The Real,” Maroney and the Browns were provided that opportunity.
On Sept. 15, Maroney and Brown embraced again. Now 13 years old, Brown is an honor-roll student and plays on the basketball team. Maroney continues his Air Force Reserve career as a master sergeant with the 308th Rescue Squadron at Patrick Air Force Base, Florida.
When not in uniform, Maroney helps young people who want to be pararescue specialists or combat controllers. He also volunteers for several military affiliated organizations.
Since the reunion, the Maroney and Brown families have grown closer.
“I keep the picture of us on my wall,” Maroney said.
He and Brown's mother also text each other almost every day, sharing jokes, he added.
“In my line of work you don’t get a lot of happy days, so when you get them you grab them and hold onto them for all they’re worth,” he said.
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Driving through the gates at Guam’s Andersen Air Force Base, someone could easily mistake the two airmen that stand guard there, and it’s easy to see why.
Though not identical, they could almost be the same person, but one has longer hair. They have the same Washington state accent, stand at about the same height with little difference in their features and they bear the same name on their vests.
U.S. Air Force Airmen 1st Class Colby and Travis Wakefield are fraternal twins who also are 36th Security Forces Squadron entry controllers.
Although Andersen is their first duty station, this is not the first time the Wakefields have served together since beginning their military careers.
Travis and Colby both signed up for security forces and left for basic training on the same day after asking if they could go together. After arriving at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland, Texas, for basic military training, they found out they were in the same flight. Together, they graduated and became airmen.
Once they reached technical training, they found a way to become roommates. However, this is not where their camaraderie was destined to end.
"After we had been at tech school for a week or so, we decided to look and see where we were going to be stationed," Colby said. "I looked first, and it said Andersen Air Force Base. My brother decided to look next, and it also said Andersen. We don't know how, but we got stationed together."
The brothers graduated technical training and went home before reporting to their first duty station.
"It was easier to come here, because I had my brother with me," Colby said. "We were going through the same thing."
After spending the first 18 years of their lives with each other, the brothers arrived here in April 2014 to perform the same job within the same squadron.
The brothers currently share the same work schedule, so their days off often coincide.
"We spend a lot of our off time doing the same things," Travis said. "We play golf and other sports with our squadron. We grew up playing a lot of the same sports. We pretty much do everything together."
Having two airmen who look very similar and share a last name can be confusing, so they were given nicknames.
"We call Colby 'Regular Wakefield' and Travis 'Baby Wakefield,' because they were born one minute apart," said Tech. Sgt. Alicia Goetschel, the 36th SFS flight chief.
The twins are soon due to find out where they’ll be assigned when they return from overseas, but they hope it won't be the end of them working together.
"We were told there's a possibility we could be kept together until we reach [higher ranks]," Colby said.
They both agreed that joining the Air Force was one of the best decisions of their life, and they hope to continue their careers together wherever the Air Force may take them.
The Wakefields also have an older sister, a mother and father who live in Washington.
"Every time I call them on the phone to see how they’re doing, they always tell me the same thing," said the twin's mother. "They tell me how happy they are with joining the Air Force and how they are so proud to see just how far they have come."
The twins aren't the only ones who have pride in what they are doing, though.
"It's been a blessing to have them stay together," the mother said. "It's also comforting to us, too; I always find out what's going on from one of the boys. We are so proud of them and all that they have accomplished."
It's early morning and the sun is bright and warm but the air is still cool on McConnell Air Force Base in Kansas. Sitting on the maroon-colored track, he slides his bright red running shoes onto his feet, grabbing each lace and tying a knot. After preparation, he begins his workout.
Air Force Capt. Daniel Castle, a 349th Air Refueling Squadron pilot, is one of five airmen selected from throughout the Air Force to participate in the World Class Athlete Program, which allows service members of all branches to train as their primary duty.
Castle will spend the next year training to run the men’s 1,500-meter in the 2016 Olympics.
Competing for a spot on an Olympic team is one of Castle’s lifelong dreams, he said.
Castle will be heading back to his alma mater, the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colorado, to train at the U.S. Olympic Complex with his former coach. Juli Benson, an academy cross country head coach and track and field assistant coach, specializes in middle and distance runners.
Over the next year, Castle will run nine to 10 times a week, an hour to an hour and a half at a time, totaling 70 to 80 miles each week. He will combine long runs ranging from 15-18 miles, shorter four- to five-mile runs at his aerobic threshold and sprints of 200 to 400 meters with weightlifting three to four times a week.
More Than a Friendly Competition
Running has been a part of Castle’s daily routine for several years now. Even with the hectic duty day of a KC-135 Stratotanker pilot, he made sure he ran each day. He often ran during lunch breaks or at 10 and 11 p.m. if the day didn't flex to his schedule.
His highly competitive running career started in college. His senior year, he set the academy record and placed 15th in the NCAA and 20th in the U.S.
Running is more than just a friendly competition, he said.
"Running is something I'm very passionate about, not only for the chance to compete," Castle said. "It's my conduit to decompress from all the stresses in life and I believe in being world class by pushing myself to do the best in everything that I do."
After graduating college, he didn't slow down. Within a year, he completed his master's degree while running 40 to 60 miles each week.
Air Force Core Values
"Determination, the idea of chasing dreams and the Air Force core values have built Castle into the airman he is today," said Air Force Staff Sgt. Shalamar Coleman, the 22nd Mission Support Group noncommissioned officer in charge of group administration.
The Olympics are a year away, but in the meantime, Castle will represent the U.S. this October in Mungyeong, Korea, at the 6th CISM World Military Games, an international military competition held every four years.
Aside from his goals as a runner, Castle said he plans to continue his Air Force career by becoming an instructor at the academy so he can inspire younger airmen to chase their dreams.
"I would love to be able to teach and mentor the next generation of Air Force officers," Castle said. "[I want] to fuel the fire of living passionately."
His drive and desire to improve himself and others comes from his beliefs in the Air Force core values, he said.
'"Excellence in all we do.' I really believe in that," Castle said. "I believe that it is the foundation to a life that is worth living, which has helped drive me to continue running despite five deployments [and] many temporary duty assignments. ... Making time to work out and run every day under the foundation of excellence is what has allowed me this chance, six years later."