Petaluma’s Joe Noriel serves veterans on the home front

North Bay Spirit Award winner Joe Noriel is one of Sonoma County’s leading champions for veterans and now heads up the annual Petaluma Veterans Day Parade.|

Petaluma Veterans Day Parade & Flyover

When: 1 p.m. Nov. 11

Where: Walnut Park and downtown Petaluma

Theme: Korean War Veterans, You Are Not Forgotten, a salute and welcome home


Joe Noriel was 8 years old when a neighbor, while packing up to move, ran across the street and pressed something into his hand.

“Here, Joe,” he said. “I want you to have this.”

The boy was intrigued and thought, “Wow. He gave me this cool medal.”

It was 1974, only a year after the U.S. pulled out of Vietnam, where 58,220 Americans had died. There were no ticker-tape parades for returning Vietnam vets. Some hid their medals or threw them out to dissociate from a brutal experience that left many with hidden scars.

What Noriel didn’t know at the time was that the medal was a Vietnam Service Medal. Only many years later would the meaning and poignancy of that gift hit him.

Noriel still has that medal. He keeps it in his home office with other military memorabilia he has collected over the years. It’s a reminder of the men and women he has dedicated himself to serving — whether by remembering the fallen or recognizing and honoring the service of those who returned.

Whenever local vets need a hand, the 56-year-old Noriel steps up.

He never joined the military, although he has a deep connection to veterans through his late father, Ron Noriel, a onetime assistant Petaluma fire chief who had served in both World War II and in Korea.

But Noriel has emerged as an unlikely but highly respected leader in the Sonoma County veterans’ community, a spokesman and go-to guy who will employ his many connections to get things done.

When a plaque honoring 15 Petaluma men who died in the Vietnam War was stolen in 2013 from Walnut Park, where it had sat for decades since it was placed there by the men’s high school friends, Noriel raised money and worked with the city to replace it. Not long afterward, he turned his attention to getting a similar memorial placed for Korean War veterans.

“So many of our veterans carry the scars from their service, whether they’re visible or invisible,” Noriel said. “It’s our responsibility to help them heal.”

“So many of our veterans carry the scars from their service, whether they’re visible or invisible,” Noriel said. “It’s our responsibility to help them heal. You see veterans in their hats or with their insignia. If you look behind their eyes, you appreciate what they’ve been through and the sacrifices they’ve made for us. A lot of times, it’s just about listening to them and connecting to them. ... It means a lot to them to know they’re not forgotten.”

Noriel took the lead in bringing the Vietnam Traveling Memorial Wall, a downsized, mobile replica of the original structure in Washington, D.C., to Petaluma in 2013. He was instrumental in getting Petaluma designated as a Purple Heart City in 2014, resulting in signs all over town honoring those wounded or killed in military service.

He is a supporting member of the Petaluma chapter of the Vietnam Veterans of America and a member of the American Legion. He rides his Harley-Davidson with the American Legion Riders, who provide funeral escorts for fallen soldiers and do other charitable work for veterans and their families.

Through his History Connections, a project he launched with Petaluma High School teacher Brian Granados, he documents veterans’ stories for posterity and brings cultural and historical speakers and events to schools and the community.

For the past three years, he has overseen the Petaluma Veterans Day Parade, producing the Nov. 11 event and serving as manager and emcee.

Begun in 1967 with just three World War I veterans marching through the downtown streets, it has grown into one of the biggest Veterans Day parades in Northern California, with more than 100 individual entrants and a vintage Huey helicopter buzzing overheard.

For his efforts on behalf of veterans, Noriel has been selected for the North Bay Spirit Award. A joint project of The Press Democrat and Comcast, the award singles out people who demonstrate extraordinary commitment in service to their community or a special cause.

“When people don’t feel like their voices are being heard or their feelings heard, Joe steps in. Joe’s mantra is yes. It’s always yes, yes, yes,” said Grandos, who nominated Noriel for the award. “He’s always positive about wanting to get involved and finds some magical way to bring it together to make it awesome.”

Friends and admirers say Noriel has an easy way with people and projects an honest empathy that inspires trust.

“He’s not slick. He’s the smoothest frosting on the cake I’ve ever seen. He doesn’t come across as evasive or strong. He just knows how to do it. The man has a gift,” said Paul Lewis, a friend and 89-year-old Korean War veteran who worked with Noriel to get the memorial plaque in Walnut Park replaced.

“I don’t think Joe has an enemy, even though he goes right into the battlefield of politics,” Lewis said. “It’s just that when he speaks, people listen and feel safe with what he says.”

This year’s parade will honor Petaluma’s Korean War veterans, with Lewis riding as grand marshal, offering these aging soldiers the hometown embrace they never got.

Early loss leads to life change

Noriel didn’t set out on a mission to work with veterans.

After graduating from Petaluma High School, he studied business at Sacramento State and later Sonoma State universities. An investing class led to some early success in the stock market, earning him a reputation as a financial wunderkind.

He was written about in USA Today and other publications and was on a clear path to becoming a stockbroker or other finance VIP. But a tragic loss made him rethink his priorities.

“A close friend of mine passed away and that, combined with some of my experiences in the stock market, completely changed the course of my life,” he said.

The friend, a young man in his 20s at the seeming peak of his health and life, died of stomach cancer.

“It was a reboot for me. I looked at things a little differently. I felt at that point that I wanted to do something more meaningful and have deeper connections with the community,” Noriel said.

Noriel had made enough money with his investments to scale back to part-time work and start volunteering. He visited elderly shut-ins through the Friendly Visitors program, undertook Hospice training, worked with Petaluma People’s Services Center and helped out in his daughters’ schools.

For the past 20 years, he has worked as a credit manager for the Petaluma-based GCX Corp., which specializes in mounting devices for hospital medical equipment. A single father of two teenage daughters, Noriel lives in a restored farmhouse in rural west Petaluma not far from where he grew up. His mother, Waltraud Noriel, 94, met his father in Germany during World War II and lives in a cottage behind the house.

Continuing his volunteering, he also got involved with the city’s operations, by joining Petaluma’s Tree Committee and the Recreation, Music and Parks commission.

When he was recruited to serve on the Petaluma Historical Library and Museum board, however, his life took a major pivot.

The museum was languishing, with low attendance. Noriel was quickly elected board president and started exploring broader exhibits that could draw in underserved people in the community, those whose stories often went untold.

He first reached out to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., and arranged to bring their traveling exhibit to Petaluma in 2009.

“We have a culture of dairy here and agriculture, but Petaluma is very diverse. We have people here who are somehow connected to the Holocaust or who are survivors,” he said. He also asked local speakers to share their stories.

Continuing his mission to make the museum experience inclusive, he initiated and helped curate “The Vietnam Experience: A Soldier’s Story” at the museum in 2010.

The exhibit brought the war in Southwest Asia home through artifacts, photographs and documents interwoven with oral histories from local Vietnam veterans, a speaker series and a reflection wall.

The exhibit proved to be a healing experience for many, particularly veterans who carried their pain inside.

“I don’t think I ever experienced anything so powerful in my life” Noriel said. “To hear how someone is being left on the side of the river and the enemy is screaming ‘You’re going to die’ all night long. ... What these guys went through, not only surviving but coming home and being marginalized and sometimes being attacked and spit on, it’s hard to understand how in the world we live with a lot of things that happened in the past.”

Noriel made so many connections to the veteran’s community through that exhibit that it set him on a new path. Veterans would seek him out for help, and he would come through, for tasks big and small, like replacing the tattered flags flying over the Petaluma River at Washington Street.

“That guy’s got a heart of a giant. He wasn’t a veteran, but he might as well have been one,” said Del Avantes, a Navy vet who runs the nonprofit California Friends of Veterans. He said Noriel has helped immensely with his effort, through Wreaths Across America, to lay wreaths on the graves of veterans in Petaluma at Christmas.

Veterans Day Parade

Noriel is so respected among vets that three years ago Steve Kemmerle, who had led the Petaluma Veterans Day Parade for 17 years, recruited Noriel as his replacement, knowing he would do the job with love and dedication.

It’s a big job to coordinate parade entries and ensure all branches and interest groups are represented. Noriel took over during the first year of COVID-19. Unwilling to call it off completely, he cut down on the risk of the virus spreading in crowds by bringing smaller versions of the parade to people in their own neighborhoods.

But this year it’s back and it’s big. The parade usually draws 20,000 to 40,000 people to downtown Petaluma every Nov. 11; many arrive early to stake out a good seat.

This year’s parade kicks off at Walnut Park at 1 p. m. and will honor Korean War vets, whose numbers are dwindling, Noriel said. He will host the parade, emcee the ceremonies at Walnut Park after and ride with the Legion Riders.

Noriel said the parade and other efforts to put a human face on military service and honor our soldiers is important for the whole community. That’s what keeps him showing up time and again for the men and women who fought under the U.S. flag.

“People don’t realize veterans are at higher risk for mental-health issues, especially if you’re a Purple Heart person,” Noriel said. “You take a bullet, you’re traumatized emotionally. People need these constant reminders of the sacrifice these vets have made. It’s easy to forget it ever happened. All these things are subtle expressions of gratitude to people who really deserve it.”

You can reach Staff Writer Meg McConahey at 707-521-5204 or

Petaluma Veterans Day Parade & Flyover

When: 1 p.m. Nov. 11

Where: Walnut Park and downtown Petaluma

Theme: Korean War Veterans, You Are Not Forgotten, a salute and welcome home


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