Couple's nonprofit sends packages of goods to Afghanistan, Iraq troops

RICHMOND, Va. — Western-style creature comforts were scarce for Black Hawk helicopter pilot Jennifer Halston and her colleagues when they were deployed to Kandahar, Afghanistan, about a year after the U.S. launched the war.

An already difficult situation was made worse when her company’s commissary burned to the ground, depriving her unit of basic toiletries and other goods, such as shampoo, toothbrushes and deodorant.

“That was the one place that we actually went to buy things on our own,” recalled Halston, who left the service as a captain and now works at the Pentagon.

But to her company’s great relief and delight, Brian and Susan Rich came to the rescue.

The Riches, who had experience gathering goods for the National Multiple Sclerosis Society and were eager to help the troops after 9/11, soon showered Halston and her colleagues with shipments of beef jerky, granola bars, cookies, gum and personal hygiene items — “in abundance,” Halston said.

“They were packages sent to me but were for everyone,” Halston explained.

Brian Rich sent “more packages than we could actually share through the company and we ended up sharing them through the entire battalion. We were probably getting two packages a week from him.”

That initial effort morphed into “A Grateful Nation,” a nonprofit enterprise the Riches formed in 2006 to ship — on their own with no other volunteers — well over 10 tons of goods to U.S. troops in Afghanistan and Iraq at no cost to service personnel or taxpayers.

From their modest, 1890s-era home they personally restored in Amelia County, Va., the Riches gather and package for shipment cases of just about everything imaginable: Starbucks coffee, wiffle ball sets, Little Debbie treats, squirt guns, greeting cards, books, dryer sheets, lip balm, sunglasses and lots and lots of candy.

The Riches ask for nothing in return other than the items be shared and not sold, or traded on the black market. To their knowledge, they have never lost a shipment.

In July, a Pennsylvania company donated 3,000 pounds of candy to the effort and dozens of cases sat stacked in the Riches’ dining room last week as they prepared to ship out another load.

“We’re down to like 800 pounds now,” Brian Rich explained. “We just sent out a hundred pounds to a group that I didn’t even know existed. They contacted us — they’re a group of English paratroopers and field artillery attached to a Marine base in Afghanistan.”

Brian Rich, a 64-year-old New Jersey native with an engaging eccentric streak, said he solicits cash donations throughout the U.S. and in Europe and New Zealand to cover the shipping costs and buy some of the goods. But companies donate many of the items directly to the Riches, and some are shipped in their name from the manufacturer.

Rich isn’t shy about asking companies and suppliers to help. He keeps a scrapbook that includes — among his successes — rejection letters from businesses that dared to say no. The self-described potentate of panhandlers marks those with a special stamp of disdain.

It might seem odd for a couple with no military background to do so much for those in uniform they never met.

Their interest in serving the troops coincided with the 9/11 attacks, along with Brian Rich learning that the daughter of an old high school friend — Jennifer Halston — was deployed to Afghanistan as a helicopter pilot in November 2012.

Halston’s mother asked Rich if he could send her soldier-daughter some goods.

“We were just sending her a care package to let her know that people hadn’t forgotten her,” said Rich, who renovates houses on the side. “So we just started piling on all the goods that we could get a hold of.”

“My wife and I both worked with the National Multiple Sclerosis Society here in Richmond for years, and part of our duties was to gather all kinds of goods for the MS walk and bike ride,” he added. “So we had a lot of experience to draw on.”

Before long, the Riches were shipping out 20 and 30 cases at a time.

“I think our largest was like 55 cases,” Rich said. “The Post Office loves me. I show up with a pickup truck full and everybody says a lot of bad words and gets out of my way. I’ll back the line out of the door by the time they get through processing my stuff.”

After Halston came home, the Riches received the name of another soldier to help, then another and another, and “it just kind of rolled on from there,” said Susan Rich, 53.

“They would send us a list, because Brian would ask them, ‘What do you need?’ That’s where the variety (of goods) would come from,” said Susan, who also juggles a full-time job as an office manager for a local podiatrist.

“I’ve met like a handful of (the soldiers), but for the most part we’ll never see a lot of these people we’ve given stuff to,” she added.

But the Riches have received dozens of thank-you letters and photographs from grateful servicemen and women and their commanding officers.

Susan Rich recalled receiving feedback from a soldier whose company received hundreds of candy canes during the Christmas season some years ago.

“He liked getting those because he used them to give to the children in Afghanistan,” she said. “When they went out on their missions, they would go to the village and they would fill their pockets with all those candy canes, and the kids loved them. They had never had hard candy.”

Army Col. Brian Mennes, who served five tours in Afghanistan and three tours in Iraq, said the Riches and those like them “are sort of priceless to a commander” because their generosity and service help boost troop morale.

“You can imagine maybe how some of the folks from Vietnam felt when it was the other way around, trying to figure out why the country’s not behind you,” said Mennes, who over the years has conferred with the Riches on what goods the troops could use while deployed. “We’ve had the completely opposite experience, largely thanks to folks like Brian and Susan.”

“They’re like a lot of great Americans out there that have been supporting our soldiers,” Mennes said. “They’re eager to put a smile on some folks’ faces, and I respect that.”

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