A memorial plaque commemorating Petaluma veterans who died fighting in the Vietnam War has been stolen from its home near the gazebo in Walnut Park, much to the dismay of local veterans and community members like Joe Noriel, president of the Petaluma Historical Museum.

The bronze statue, mounted on a stone platform, may have gone missing as early as Christmas Day.

"I just don't see how someone could steal something so sacred," said Noriel on Tuesday afternoon, shortly after learning about the theft.

The memorial was erected shortly after the Vietnam War — one of the first in the area to go up after the war — and has stood in Walnut Park for decades, according to Noriel.The plaque had recently been taken down so that a name could be added to it, he recalled.

The museum curated an exhibit on Vietnam in 2010, and many activities centered around the memorial, Noriel remembered. "We had a ceremony to honor these guys who laid down their lives," he said. "It's really close to our hearts."

The bronze plaque was likely stolen in order to be melted down and sold for the value of the metal. Police Lt. Tim Lyons estimated that there have been between 40 and 50 metal-related thefts in Petaluma in the last year. Thefts have sometimes put public safety at risk, as in the case of stolen mufflers, fire valves and copper wire used on train tracks. He was not aware of anyone being apprehended for metal theft in Petaluma, adding that metal thiefs tend to work at night when few people are around to spot them.

Vietnam veteran John Cheney said he couldn't help but feel angry when he heard the plaque had been stolen. "It's important to all of us who served in Vietnam, a way of honoring those we served with," he said. He and other veterans are planning to work with Noriel to replace it.

"This type of callous crime won't be tolerated," Noriel said. "Replacement will be a priority."

By Wednesday afternoon, Will Bomar of Powell's Sweet Shoppe had already offered to match any donations made to replace the plaque up to $500.

Anyone wishing to help fund the replacement of the plaque can make a donation to the Petaluma Historical Library & Museum and note that it is for the Vietnam Memorial. The museum is located at 20 Fourth St. The museum phone number is 778-4398.

According to Lt. Tim Lyons, police currently have no leads on who may have stolen the plaque. They also did not have an estimate of how much the plaque was worth. They're asking anyone with information to call the Police Department at 778-4370.