Kelly Byrd was just 4 years old when her father, Lt. Edsall Frick, was killed in combat in Vietnam.
As Byrd was cleaning out her late paternal grandmother's belongings several years ago, a letter amidst the trash caught her eye. It was from Sgt. Gary Henderson, who was with her father when he was mortally wounded in 1968.
He'd written to Frick's mother describing how much his buddy meant to him. Though the letter was five years old, Byrd took a chance and wrote back to the Knoxville, Tenn., address. Henderson had moved a few years before, but luckily a postman friend knew his new address and delivered it.
The pair corresponded and eventually met, cementing a bond started half a world away in another time.
On Thursday, dressed in his spotless Army green uniform, Henderson joined Byrd in Petaluma to pay tribute to Frick and 14 other young Petaluma men killed during the Vietnam War.
Thursday's ceremony dedicating a new Vietnam memorial monument came 44 years to the day after the original plaque was installed in 1969 in Walnut Park. The approximately 2-by-2 foot plaque includes the names of 15 Petaluma servicemen killed in the war in bas relief under a set of prayerful hands and a map of Vietnam.
"I was too young to thank them then, so 44 years later, I'd like to say thank you from the bottom of my heart," an emotional Byrd told a crowd of about 200 people. "Thank you for not forgetting them."
Henderson, too, got teary when he thought of Frick. He said it was important for him to be there for his buddy and Byrd, to whom he has become a father figure.
In December, someone stole the original bronze memorial tablet from its pedestal next to the park's gazebo, perhaps for its scrap metal value. The act galvanized the people who'd fought in 1969 to have their friends memorialized at a time when emotions ran high about America's involvement in the conflict.
The theft sparked outrage at its callousness, but also generated financial support from the Petaluma firefighters' union, veterans groups, local companies and dozens of individuals who donated about $10,000 to create a new monument.
Petaluma resident Ed Hergert, one of the original committee members, said Thursday the new monument, larger and more secure than the first, righted a wrong.
"The boys are back in Walnut Park — bigger, bolder and more beautiful than ever," he said.
The new monument is more prominently displayed, is larger and is more secure than the original.
When the plaque was stolen, a coalition of Petaluma service groups had already begun refurbishing the park's landscaping and they used the opportunity to highlight the new monument with red, white and blue flowering plants, among other improvements.
"No number of wreaths, no amount of music and memorializing will ever do them justice, but it is important they are not forgotten as this plaque represents Petaluma's sacrifice to the Vietnam War," said Joe Noriel, president of the Petaluma museum and a main organizer in the effort to replace the plaque.
"Because of this lasting monument, these men will never be forgotten in Petaluma. It is a permanent reminder of their devotion and their sacrifice and will be seen by generations to come."