SEDRO-WOOLLEY — The back roads of Sedro-Woolley were busier than usual Saturday, as veterans and supporters made their way to the Welcome Home Vietnam Vets picnic.
In the five years Ande Mitchelle has hosted the picnic on his property, the turnout has continued to grow.
About 200 veterans and their families shared a meal and honored those who died in service. It was a casual event, with a brief presentation with speeches, a flag ceremony and “Taps” and music from the Guy Daniels Band.
“This is a place of peace,” Mitchelle said. “We don’t talk about war stories here. We talk about today and tomorrow, because the future is the only thing you can control.”
At fold-out tables in the center of a shady clearing, attendees young and old munched on heaping plates of brisket and crab, courtesy of Mitchelle’s long-time friends Bonnie Irish and Sean Nispel.
It’s a “group effort,” said Irish, one made easier by all of Mitchelle’s friends and supporters who come each year to lend a hand.
“The guy is selfless,” said Nispel. “He’d give you the shirt off his back – that’s just Ande.”
Nispel said Mitchelle has spent years transforming a section of his Sedro-Woolley land from a dense forest to an ideal picnic locale. It started with removing limbs from tall pines. Now, the property has bathrooms and a kitchen structure, and can be accessed by vehicle.
This year, Irish said, the event went smoother than ever. After getting their fill, attendees browsed a T-shirt vendor stand, gazed at Dale and Dusty Smiley’s restored military trucks and marveled at John and Michelle Moberg’s eye-catching semi-truck, which was decorated to honor veterans and fallen service members.
“Ande puts on such a great event,” said Sen. Keith Wagoner, who serves the 39th Legislative District and has attended the event with his friend, a veteran, for two years.
Mitchelle, a Vietnam vet himself, said the event is his “gift to the veterans.”
The heart and hospitality behind the event is what makes it a fixture for the community. Though many have attended since the start, a fair number of newcomers stopped in Saturday.
David Arnold, 76, recently moved to Sedro-Woolley and was encouraged to attend to make friends.
“I’ve never gone to anything like this before,” Arnold said. “There’s a lot of people here who did what I did.”
For Marilyn Carlson, the military has been her entire life. She was raised in a military family and married a Navy service member. But since her husband’s sudden death in 2015, she said she has often felt lost.
Coming to the picnic was a sort of homecoming.
“Look at them, they’re family,” Carlson said, wiping tears from her cheek. “I think that’s what I’ve been grasping for.