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Researcher's quest to interview World War II veterans brings him to Norfolk

Rishi Sharma, 22, of Agoura Hills, California, poses for a portrait at Tidewater Veterans Memorial at Virginia Beach on Tuesday, Dec. 22, 2020. Sharma, whose mission is to interview all WWII combat veterans, has interviewed over 1,100 veterans so far.

HANNAH RUHOFF/THE VIRGINIAN-PILOT

By ROBYN SIDERSKY | The Virginian-Pilot | Published: December 28, 2020

NORFOLK, Va. (Tribune News Service) — When Rishi Sharma was in high school, he would walk into nursing homes and ask if there were any World War II veterans he could talk to. He wanted to thank them for their service.

They were so happy at one to see a young person, they took him to 25 different rooms to talk to the vets. After hearing their stories, he decided he wanted to start recording them. He turned a conference room into a makeshift studio and began making videos of his conversions with the men he spoke to.

Now, he travels around the country doing the same thing.

Sharma, 22, has interviewed about 1,100 veterans over the past four years in 45 states, Canada, the United Kingdom and New Zealand. His goal is to interview all living World War II combat veterans who fought for the allied countries and eventually make a television series. There are about 325,000 World War II veterans left and 296 die each day, according to the National World War II Museum. Nearly 7,000 are in Virginia, according to the museum.

Now he’s in Norfolk, hoping to collect more stories.

“World War II veterans literally saved the world,” Sharma said.

Sharma created a nonprofit called Heroes of the Second World War for his project. First, he started a GoFundMe campaign to raise the funds to travel and do interviews. Once he got some media attention, it took off. He’s spent much of the past four years on the road, away from his home in California.

He bypassed college and started his project instead. He’s always been interested in history and when he was a child, all he ever wanted to be was a Marine. But he pictured an 18-year-old fighting in jungles or sand and couldn’t do it. And, he says, there’s more gray area today with wars.

He was so anxious to document the stories of veterans that he wanted to spend all his time doing it, instead of being stuck in a classroom. Just a few months after he finished high school, in December 2016, he went to Pearl Harbor for the 75th commemoration of the surprise attack there.

The interviews are documented on his website, sent to museums around the country, universities and the Smithsonian, and each veteran gets a copy of their own interview on DVD.

He picked World War II for a very specific reason.

“If you look at the long span of the history of humanity, there has never been such polarizing sides of conflict and one that is so unambiguously clear that they were fighting for the right thing,” he said.

He talked about how serving in the military and fighting in wars is different today than it was then. Now, service members are in for a certain number of years and can choose to leave. That wasn’t an option at the time of the second world war.

“You were in the war until it ended, you were killed or too wounded,” he said.

To him, it’s an admirable quality to have served then and he wants to remember those experiences.

“It gives me so much pride to be a part of this country and to share that identity with these veterans,” he said. “What they were fighting for is something I can help preserve.”

Since he has done the interviews, his stance on the war has only grown stronger. He’s shocked at the level of atrocities committed by the Germans and Japanese. He now wishes the Americans had gotten involved in the war sooner.

“It’s a little sad spot in American history,” he said.

Sharma’s plans have shifted due to the pandemic. He’s done fewer interviews since the veterans are older and more susceptible to getting sick.

Instead of going to people’s houses, he often meets them somewhere like a hotel conference room or outside now. But it hasn’t stopped him from doing the interviews because he sees it as his full-time job.

His life perspective has changed since he started the project.

“When I was a teen, I cared about how many Instagram followers I had, pimples and what I looked like. I was such a wimp.”

The project made him appreciate how fortunate he is.

“I can dream about my life and not worry about getting killed in a war zone,” he said. “I’ve met vets with arms missing and legs missing. You can’t complain about anything after meeting people like that.”

He’s also learned that the combat they saw is “so much worse than any movie or book can ever portray.”

“What made them incredible is that they were not invincible and did it anyway,” he said.

He describes that generation as those who made every day of their lives about those around them.

“These veterans, after they looked death in the eye in the war, they made every moment count.”

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