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After a bronze plaque commemorating 15 fallen Vietnam soldiers from Petaluma was reported missing last week, community outrage flared — But just as quickly, an unlikely coalition sprang up to replace it, revealing a rich history between Petaluma and its veterans.

The memorial, about an inch thick and two feet across, was reportedly among the first in the county to be erected in honor of Vietnam soldiers, put up at a time when the war was still deeply controversial. According to Petaluma historian Katherine Rinehart, the plaque was not only an important memorial; it was a work of art created by noted Petaluma resident and artist, Rosa Estebanez, who also crafted the wrist wrestling statue at the intersection of East Washington Street and Petaluma Boulevard North. For decades, the plaque stood quietly on its stone base near the gazebo in Walnut Park until it went missing around Christmas time. It was probably stolen for the value of its metal.

Police have no leads into the theft, said Petaluma Lt. Tim Lyons.

However, support has poured in from a group of veterans and other community members intent on replacing the plaque, perhaps with something even bigger or more elaborate, and certainly more theft-proof, than the original.

Shortly after he learned about the theft, Petaluma Historical Museum President Joe Noriel, who became familiar with the memorial during a Vietnam War exhibit the museum held in 2010, started working with veterans groups to replace it.

The same day, Will Bomar of Powell's Sweet Shoppe offered to chip in a $500 matching donation.

Les Schwab Tires committed to contributing $1,000 to the cause, and the Petaluma firefighters' union offered to put an even larger sum toward the plaque's replacement.

Union President Ken Dick said firefighters are willing to contribute up to several thousand dollars, depending on what the veterans decide is best.

"It's an issue that's pretty near and dear to our hearts," Dick said. He explained that the son of former Fire Captain Wes Penry, a 40-year member of the fire department, received the Congressional Medal of Honor while serving in Vietnam. That was Richard "Butch" Penry, who is honored at Penry Park for heroically risking his life during a nighttime ambush mission in Vietnam. The story is the stuff of movies: When his platoon unexpectedly came under attack, Penry braved a barrage of enemy fire to give first aid to injured soldiers. He then ran back through harm's way to retrieve radios on which to call for help and ammunition. Incredibly, using grenades and his M-16, he almost single-handedly fought off the attack. When evacuation helicopters approached, he carried 18 injured men to safety.

Another moving story that has emerged from the plaque theft is the friendship that has grown between the local Vietnamese community and Vietnam-era veterans. It stems from the 2010 exhibit on the Vietnam War that the Historical Museum put on, when Noriel reached out to the Sonoma Vietnamese Association, SOVA, to see if they'd participate. SOVA agreed, finding and sharing artifacts for the exhibit. When a parade was planned to honor Vietnam Veterans as part of the exhibit, the veterans invited some of the Vietnamese Americans to join, said Kimchi Moyer, chair of SOVA.

So the Vietnamese group met the veterans in Walnut Park to join in a moving ceremony honoring both fallen American soldiers and Vietnamese ancestors.

"It was the first time the groups had really come hand-in-hand together, to show we're working together," Moyer said. The Vietnamese Americans also presented the veterans with wooden hearts, while the veterans offered the Vietnamese an American flag.

From there, Moyer said, a friendship formed, with veterans now attending and helping out at the annual Vietnamese New Years celebration in Santa Rosa. Last year, the two groups shared a float during a parade in Santa Rosa.

Now, SOVA has offered to help replace the stolen plaque.

"It's really sad that this has happened," Moyer said, "But on the other hand, I look at it as an opportunity for us to work together and make something even better."

Local veteran Steve Kemmerle, who organizes the Veterans Day Parade in Petaluma, agreed that while the theft itself was an outrage, good things could ultimately come from it. Interested groups will meet at the Petaluma Museum on Thursday to discuss plans for the replacement plaque.

"I've got ideas; I'm sure others have ideas too," Kemmerle said. "It will be better than it was."

Noriel said he has even heard from some of the people who were responsible for installing the original plaque, and that at least one of them plans to be there Thursday.

"It's time to really recognize these guys," Noriel said.

(Contact Jamie Hansen at jamie.hansen@arguscourier.com)