A shiny new plaque commemorating Petaluma's fallen Vietnam soldiers was placed in Walnut Park on May 30, about 6 months after the original was stolen from its pedestal.

The replacement was installed 44 years to the day after the original was first placed there at the behest of a youth committee made up of friends of the fallen soldiers. At that time, the Vietnam war was still going on and sentiments about the war were divided.

But last Thursday, a crowd of more than 300 turned out to celebrate the fallen Vietnam veterans from Petaluma. The event featured a helicopter flyover and speeches by some of the relatives of the 15 veterans commemorated on the plaque, among others.

"I expected it to be an emotional day, but I was really shocked when the helicopter flew over," said Joe Noriel, outgoing president of the Petaluma Museum, who organized efforts to replace the plaque. "Right before it happened, I was reminiscing about how the Youth Committee made it happen back in 1969, when emotions were definitely divided over the war. At the dedication, it was like things had come full circle.

"The theft was a terrible tragedy," Noriel acknowledged, "but it felt like we were part of something that was meant to be."

Indeed, the plaque's theft seemed to set in motion a series of events that will serve to further recognize local veterans and beautify Walnut Park, which had grown neglected over the years.

Numerous groups came together to raise funds for the new memorial, including the Petaluma Historical Museum, local veterans groups, the Petaluma firefighters' union, and many other local businesses and organizations. In total, about $12,000 was raised.

The original memorial was created by the late, famed local artist Rosa Estebanez. One of her students, Maureen Frances, modeled the new one after the original.

It features hands held in prayer over Vietnam.

Frances became familiar with the memorial before it was stolen, when, as part of Petaluma Valley Rotary Club, she helped to clean the plaque in preparation for the installation of a nearby bench honoring veteran and Rotarian Ron Flagg. The Rotary Club also planned to plant red, white and blue landscaping around the park's gazebo. When the theft occurred, Frances and an alliance of local service clubs, the Petaluma Service Alliance, decided to step up efforts of improving and caring for the park.

This spring, the rotarians convened to repaint the 27 benches which surround the gazebo with the help of O'Brien Painting. The patriotic landscaping has been planted, too.

And, if all goes according to plan, the 1.5-acre park just south of downtown Petaluma could soon have new walkways and a pole with the word "peace" inscribed in six different languages.

In talking with the city about the changes, Frances learned that the pathways in Walnut Park are crumbling, making it difficult for seniors, some veterans and others with disabilities to traverse the park. The coalition is planning to work with the city and do what it can to replace the pavement.

"I called on everyone to adopt the park, drive by occasionally to do surveillance," Frances said. "It has a different feel there now."

In October, the homage to Vietnam veterans will continue when Noriel's new nonprofit organization, History Connection, brings the Vietnam Memorial Traveling Wall to Petaluma.