DAVENPORT – It was 2005 and Joel Rodriguez had recently fulfilled a five-year enlistment in the United States Army and was back home at his parents’ house in Haines City.
He and Fernando Rodriguez, his younger brother – who was an enlisted soldier in the National Guard – were having a drink at Downtown Disney and discussing Fernando’s upcoming deployment to war-torn Afghanistan. That’s when Joel made the offer to reenlist – only this time in his brother’s National Guard unit – in order to go to war with his brother.
“I told Fernando I’d go with him. I didn’t have any ties at the time,” Joel recalled.
After speaking with his brother’s commander, it was agreed that Joel wouldn’t have to go through basic training again, but would attend advanced individual training to become an artilleryman.
That job was quite different than working as an air traffic controller, Joel’s job for the past five years or so. He’d been stationed at Fort Rucker, Alabama, at the Army’s busiest location for helicopter traffic.
About eight months later, the brothers were on an Army plane destined for Afghanistan to risk their lives for their country.
Today, they are the successful co-owners of three locations of their popular restaurant, Ovation Bistro, in Davenport, Lakeland and Winter Haven.
Although the brothers said they learned a long list of valuable traits while in the military, brotherly love wasn’t one that they needed to be taught. The ties between them are more than learned – they are blood.
“Before I joined the Army, I was a punk. I was overweight and almost didn’t get to enlist,” Joel said. “The Army taught me about discipline and how to be a part of a team.”
Fernando agrees. Four years younger than Joel, he watched as his big brother joined the Army and became successful. Like most kids, Fernando looked up to his older brother and that was part of the reason he wanted to enlist in the military.
“He (Joel) would come home on leave and hangout for a couple of weeks,” Fernando said. “He would tell us stories about things that had happened in the Army and I thought, ‘I wanna do that.’”
The patriotism in the family continues. Just this past Fourth of July, there were patriotic decorations and “humongous” American flags on the family’s front porch. The brothers live only two miles from one another – Joel recently moved his wife, Tamra, and their two daughters 10 miles closer than they were living from Fernando and his family. Fernando is married to his wife, Stephanie, and they also have two children.
Joel is passionate about the importance of the military to American citizens.
“I am teaching my children that freedom is not free. That we should thank the soldiers – not the reporter — for freedom of the press. Thank the soldiers, not the priest, for freedom of religion. Thank the soldier, not the politician, for the right to vote,” he said. “It is the soldiers who salute and honor our flag, then have it draped on their caskets when they leave us, all the while they fought and protected our right to burn it. I’m teaching my oldest daughter these things and she gets it.”
The brothers are disciplined, just like they were in the military, regularly working long hours at any one of their three restaurants. Just this week, Fernando jumped in to work – like they often do — in the kitchen at one location when the regular chef called in sick.
Both of them admit that there were times when they were in Afghanistan that they were scared, times that the after shock could be felt at their locations.
And, their parents, who have two other children, had to wait here in Florida for not one but two sons to come home from war. As children, Fernando and Joel traveled around the country – wherever the crops were at the time – with their hardworking parents.
The military helped them along the way, receiving their college degrees and becoming successful businessmen.
Joel says he is currently studying the U.S. Constitution with a late 1700s dictionary in order to understand the true meaning of each word written by the Founding Fathers.
“I owe much of what I have now to the Army,” Joel said. “The Army definitely shaped my future.”