Charlotte Observer Newspaper: Determination links generations of ‘Ironmen’

My grandfather and I at the 2008 Ironman 70.3 World Championship in Clearwater, Florida

This is a newspaper article that was published in December 2011, and I wanted to post it in on my blog to celebrate the Air Force retirement of my grandfather, which took place on January 31, 2012

DETERMINATION LINKS GENERATIONS OF ‘IRONMEN’

Charlotte Observer, by Joe DePriest

Catawba County (North Carolina) native Joe Lineberger, 80, and his grandson, Brian Boyle, 25, are best friends. They hang out, talk a lot and enjoy the company. What’s more: they inspire each other. They’ve inspired me since I’ve gotten to know them over the past few weeks.

When Boyle told me about his grandfather’s recent “Spirit of Service” award from the U.S. Air Force, he didn’t mention his book about recovering from a near fatal auto accident as a teenager. “Iron Heart” by Brian Boyle with Bill Katovsky (founder of Triathlete magazine) was first published in 2009 and a paperback version came out on Nov. 15.

Lineberger brought up the subject of his grandson soon after we first talked. He asked if I knew about Boyle’s injuries, his comeback and completing a dream of finishing an Ironman Triathlon.

That’s how it went: grandfather and grandson putting the emphasis not on themselves, but the other. There’s an energy going on here – a sharing of strength. 

As a kid, Lineberger picked cotton on a Catawba County farm and later worked in his uncle’s grocery in downtown Maiden. Three uncles served in World War II and he was proud of them. At Maiden High, he played football, baseball and basketball – dreaming of going to Duke University. His family couldn’t afford the tuition so Lineberger joined Duke’s R.O.T.C. program and worked odd jobs like waiting tables in the university dining hall and selling football programs at games.

He was determined to succeed and earned a bachelor’s degree from Duke. Later, he’d get a master of business administration degree from the University of Chicago.

Action in Vietnam

Lineberger’s Air Force career began in 1953; he retired 28 years later as a colonel, but stayed on as a civilian employee. At 80, Lineberger still works full-time at Andrews Air Force Base and the Pentagon. He’s a Senior Executive Service member, the equivalent of a three-star general. 

The “Spirit of Service” award is for more than 50 years of service, including assignments with Air Force headquarters in Washington and the Office of the Secretary of the Air Force. Lineberger was military assistant to the assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Manpower, Reserve Affairs and Installations under five assistant secretaries. 

During the recent awards ceremony Michael Rhodes, director of administration and management in the office of the Secretary of Defense, talked about Lineberger and others who were being honored that day. “….They’ve had a hand in creating the world we live in today,” he said. “For more than five decades, each of the tremendous public servants we’re celebrating today has ensured our military strength and readiness. They meant business and they got business done.” 

Lineberger has pulled his share of administrative duties. But he was also awarded the Bronze Star for taking part in ground action during the bloody 1968 Tet Offensive in Vietnam. He was in Cholon, the Chinese section of Saigon, where some of the most intense fighting took place. 

The Vietnam War is a subject he knows first-hand. He’s researched Congressional Medal of Honor nominations for two Air Force heroes killed in Vietnam and shepherded the paperwork through the system: From the Joint Chiefs of Staff and defense department to Congress and the White House. “I guided them through the hoops,” Lineberger said. “I know the hoops. I’ve been through them before.”

One of those Medal of Honor winners, Airman Bill Pitsenbarger, is the subject of a movie that will be filmed next year, partly in the Carolinas and Georgia. Lineberger is one of the consultants on “The Last Full Measure” with an all-star cast that includes Bruce Willis, Robert Duvall, Laurence Fishburne, Morgan Freeman and Charlie Hunnam. 

Lineberger has many relatives and friends in North Carolina and wishes he could get back more often to see them. Maybe the movie will give him the chance. 

Meanwhile, he’s still working with the Air Force because “it keeps the mind fresh,” Lineberger told me.

His wife, Mary Helen, died seven years ago. They had five children. Boyle is the oldest of nine grandchildren. 

Although Lineberger keeps in shape by walking, he doesn’t do the grueling Ironman Triathlons and marathons Boyle takes on. But Lineberger is often at the finish line to offer encouragement.  The fact his grandson is out doing all that physically challenging stuff is nothing short of a miracle. 

Learning to walk

Boyle, who lives in Welcome, Md., was 18 when he headed home from swim practice one day and a dump truck rammed into his Camaro. Air-lifted to a shock-trauma hospital, he’d lost 60 percent of his blood, his heart had moved across his chest, and his organs and pelvis were pulverized.  In a coma for two months, he eventually came to and relearned how to walk, run and swim. 

He’s won all sorts of competitions, graduated cum laude from St. Mary’s College of Maryland and in 2010 was awarded the American Red Cross Regional Spokesperson of the Year award for the second year in a row. 

Boyle has been featured on “The Ellen DeGeneres Show,” NBC’s “Today” show, ESPN, and in The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, Fitness magazine, Runner’s World – the list goes on and on. You can get all the details in “Iron Heart: The True Story of How I Came Back From the Dead.” 

Boyle survived because of his ironclad determination. He got that from his grandfather – somebody Boyle said “I want to and will try to emulate the rest of my life.” 

A “model of determination,” Boyle called him. “And most of all, a hero.” 

I’d call both of them “ironmen.”

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