Imagine being only 22 years old and finding yourself in command of a battalion of U.S. soldiers, some of them older than your father. Then imagine the prospect of taking those soldiers into combat overseas.
That’s the exact situation faced by a young Joe Gil, who was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1965, beginning a military career that would last nearly two decades and include service in the Vietnam War and multiple leadership positions with the Oklahoma Army National Guard.
Today, many years later, Joe's is a familiar face across all sections of Norman society, as he volunteers in a leadership role with a number of veterans’ groups, along with various charities, civic organizations and Norman public schools.
“I try to do something each day, and I thank my time in the service for helping me to be a better man,” he said.
Joe’s path to becoming a Norman resident was a winding one. Originally from California, he made his first visit to Oklahoma after basic and advanced training, when he was accepted into Officer Candidate School at Fort Sill, graduating as a second lieutenant. (He would later be promoted to captain during his tour in Vietnam.)
After the war, Joe returned to Fort Sill, where he was honorably discharged. While job hunting post-service, he joined the Oklahoma Army National Guard. He chose to live in Norman but spent weekends commanding three separate guard units over the years, two in Enid and one in Blackwell.
His personal experiences during and after Vietnam have made Joe determined to ensure that America’s veterans receive the respect and assistance they deserve.
“I went through a lot of anger and survivor guilt; there was a lot I had to work through, given how we Vietnam veterans were treated when we returned to the States,” Joe said. “It was very difficult, especially when I came home, and everyone turned their back on us.”
After leaving the Guard in October 1980, Joe worked in a managerial role for several Norman restaurants and bars, including Kelly’s, Luciano’s, Genjii Euro-Japanese and Pink’s (now The Library). He drew on that and his military experience to take a leap of faith and become a business owner.
In 1993, Joe opened what would become the iconic Joe’s Taverna on OU’s Campus Corner.
“I turned it into a lot of fun,” he said. “We had a ‘Cheers’-type atmosphere that I deliberately worked hard to achieve.”
Over the years, Joe also became a surrogate father of sorts for his many young employees, most of whom referred to him as Papa Joe, Pappa or Papi.
Today, that concern for others carries over into every aspect of Joe’s life. For two years he’s helped veterans through his work as finance officer for Norman’s American Legion Post. He’s also an active officer with the Norman Cross Timbers Rotary Club, and he does both fundraising and hands-on volunteering with a long list of charitable organizations and schools.
“My time in the service made me a better man, and the skills I learned there and as a businessman enable me to help others,” he said. “I do this because I care and because I can, and I use that as the backbone for all that I do.
“I’ve learned to forgive our nation for how they treated us as Vietnam veterans,” Joe added. “But I’ll never forget, and all the (community) work I do is because I came home, and 58,000 soldiers did not. That put me on this path, to do what they might have done. I do this for love of my brothers.”