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Joe Lineberger just missed serving in World War II.
The Maiden native hasn't missed much since in a military service career than spans six decades.
The Department of Defense recently honored Lineberger, now 80 and the civilian equivalent of a three-star general, with the Spirit of Service award for his time and work in the Air Force. He currently works as a civilian at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland.
"I never thought a little country boy from Maiden, Newton and Catawba County would see the things I've seen," Lineberger said this week in an interview with The O-N-E.
"Some of them I wouldn't care to go back to, but some of them I'm glad I got to. I would have never been able to afford them had it not been for the military. It seems like only yesterday that the journey started."
Lineberger's life journey started as the son of a Maiden farmer. His father was the oldest of seven children and didn't finish third grade.
He dropped out of school to help tend the family farm.
"I learned more from my father than all the colleges and military schools and everything else I've done," Lineberger said. "He taught integrity, credibility and 'don't lie,' determination. We didn't have a car until I was a senior in college. We were poor people. When you grew up poor like that, you challenge yourself to be successful in whatever you do."
Lineberger played basketball, baseball and football at Maiden High School, graduating in 1949 and moving on to Duke University, where he was commissioned out of the Air Force Reserve Officers Training Corps and eventually achieved the rank of colonel.
"It was a transition from Maiden High School to Duke," he said. "I just carried the personality and determination from that part of the country, saying 'I can do this. I can do anything.' I just missed World War II. My age kept me out, and when I did graduate I figured I owed some time. Little did I know I was going to give it this much."
His active-duty service career took him around the world and to conflicts that required him to use his father's lessons to stay alive.
In 1954-55, Lineberger served a 14-month assignment at Thule Air Force Base in northern Greenland. Thule sits 750 miles north of the Arctic Circle, and Lineberger said temperatures many times reached 95 degrees below zero. Four months of darkness followed four months of complete daylight. Winds often blew at more than 120 mph.
Trading the extreme cold for extreme heat, Lineberger served in Vietnam in the 1960s. Temperatures there regularly reached 100 degrees in the shade, he said.
During the Vietnam War, he was involved in the Tet Offensive, a military operation where an Army unit liberated an area of Saigon that was surrounded by Vietnamese and Russian enemies.
"I didn't eat for eight and a half days," he said. "Nobody did, because we were surrounded. We're lucky we're living today. We were certainly glad to see the Army arrive. It was hand-to-hand combat."
Lineberger received a Bronze Star medal for his combat service in Vietnam.
After a period of stateside assignments, he retired from active service in August 1980 and assumed his current civilian position.
Lineberger now works with wounded service members who return from Iraq and Afghanistan assignments.
"Some of these people are really mangled," he said. "Loss of legs, loss of arms, (post-traumatic stress disorder). Older people that are around are using our experience in Vietnam and other places to prepare them for what they're going into and when they get back help take care of them. I saw an awful lot in Vietnam, so I know what these kids are going to go through."
At 80, Lineberger said his health is still good, and he plans to continue working for the foreseeable future. His father lived to be 96 and his mother 91.
"Because of my past experience, I'll hang around here," he said.
Much of his family still lives in and around Catawba County â€” a sister in Newton, cousins in Conover and Hickory, relatives in Maiden and a brother-in-law in Lincolnton. His five children are grown and nine grandchildren are studying in college.
"As far as I'm concerned, Catawba County and the surrounding counties, that's the best place in the world," Lineberger said. "I may go back there yet. I like the kind of people, the pace of life, the sincerity."