For decades, a bronze plaque commemorating 15 Petaluma servicemen killed in Vietnam sat as a quiet reminder of the toll of war on a small town thousands of miles away from the battle zone.
But in a few frantic moments, likely under cover of darkness, a thief made off with the plaque from its pedestal in Walnut Park.
Petaluma veterans are shocked and wounded by the act, which they say feels like a betrayal, a very personal attack — ostensibly for the scrap metal value.
"That's getting pretty low to steal a war memorial," said Steve Kemmerle, who was an Army MP from 1969 to 1971 and organizes the Veterans Day Parade in Petaluma each year.
"I'm just dumbfounded," said Joe Noriel, president of the Petaluma Museum, which held a successful Vietnam Experience exhibit in 2010 that brought together veterans and members of the Vietnamese community.
It's an act that is becoming more common, with metal thefts from war memorials being reported in just the last four months in Los Angeles, Connecticut, England and Wales. On Monday, a British newspaper reported the recent theft of a plaque marking the 500th anniversary of the Battle of Flodden between England and Scotland.
The Vietnam memorial plaque, about 25 inches by 30 inches and an inch thick, was cut from its stone base on a stand near the gazebo at Walnut Park off Petaluma Boulevard South and D Street.
Noriel and veterans became aware of the theft this week, but police Lt. Tim Lyons said a transient who frequents the park said he noticed it missing during the week before Christmas.
"We have no leads," he said, "but it was probably for the metal value."
Similar thefts have increased markedly over the past several years as prices for scrap metal have increased with demand in China and elsewhere overseas. Per pound prices of copper a few years ago hovered at $1.30 in 2009 to a high of about $4.50 a pound in 2011, according to infomine.com, which tracks metal prices.