For the past five years, Rishi Sharma has been traveling the world interviewing World War II veterans for his nationally recognized nonprofit. Now, he is in Kentucky searching for veterans to add to his register.
Sharma’s foundation, Heroes of the Second World War, has compiled more than 1,100 interviews with veterans, but his mission has only just begun.
The California native wants to eventually interview every World War II veteran still alive so their stories and experiences are never lost to history.
His mission has been recognized and covered by The Associated Press, The New York Times, “CBS Evening News” and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
For the past week, Sharma has been conducting interviews in the state, and he is now looking for veterans to speak with in Warren County and southcentral Kentucky.
“I grew up in southern California, and that’s very different than Kentucky. But when you go to these places, you break bread with these people and you understand why people believe what they believe,” Sharma told the Daily News. “The veterans have helped me put myself in their shoes and understand what they believe in. It’s given me perspective on what’s really important.”
The 23-year-old began interviewing veterans during his time at Agoura High School in Agoura Hills, Calif.
He became fascinated by his first few conversations, and after “The CBS Sunday Morning Show” did a story on Sharma’s initial efforts, he had received more than $150,000 in his GoFundMe account from people throughout the country.
With the crowdsourced support, he decided to hit the road and what was once an idea became his passion.
“I was just so amazed and appreciative that a bunch of young kids literally saved the world from tyranny,” he said. “They were my age when they did that. So, I wanted to thank them. The purpose of this is to highlight the true human cost of war, and what we as a society put our veterans through.”
Since then, Heroes of the Second World War has reached full nonprofit status and has conducted interviews in 45 states, the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada, New Zealand and France.
After the interview is conducted, Sharma puts it on a DVD and sends it back to the veteran.
Sharma says the discussions concentrate on their time in the service. Often times, it provides an opportunity for veterans to talk about their sacrifices and fallen comrades.
“For a lot of veterans, this is an opportunity to share things they might have never shared before,” he said. “I truly feel like I’m doing history and these men who laid down their lives a service. We are really giving back some of their humanity.”
“These men are literally walking history books,” he continued. “They are in their 90s and 100s. Think about all of the experiences they had during that time. These men served alongside men who were killed. Instantly, those names are given more dignity. It’s great for younger people to hear about their sacrifices.”
Sharma says while he conducts general research before each interview, he goes into each one without having any emotional attachment. He says the lack of familiarity often makes for poignant moments.
Sharma has found himself slowly changed by the hundreds of exchanges he has had.
“When I started to interview the veterans, I started to gain perspective,” he said. “That’s maybe the most important thing people will get from these interviews. When you talk to people who have been wounded, it gives you a whole new reality on what’s important and what’s not. People are not conditioned to be cognitive of the real sacrifices made to ensure our way of life.”
While he will be in the state over the course of the next few days, Sharma says he can conduct interviews in our area again in the near future, and he is always willing to come back to Kentucky.
The end goal of his project is to create the world’s largest archive of veterans.
“Papers are the best way to get in touch with veterans, so that’s why I wanted to reach out,” Sharma told the Daily News. “It’s amazing in these small towns who some of these heroes are. Anyone who knows any WWII veterans in this area, please contact me. We are actively looking for them. If we don’t preserve their memories, I’m afraid their experiences will be lost to history.”
Sharma can be reached at 202-315-8743 for any inquiries. Interested parties can also reach out by visiting www.heroesofthe secondworldwar.org.
Many interviews are also publicly uploaded to the YouTube Channel “Legends of WWII.”