Teenager Rishi Sharma has made it his mission to conduct commemorative in-depth interviews with as many World War II combat veterans as he possibly can. With most of these veterans now in their 90s, the 19-year-old knows the clock is ticking.
“Honestly, this is my only mission in life,” he told LifeZette with all the earnestness of youth, ambition — and genuine care.
Sharma, an Agoura Hills, California, high school graduate, is the founder of Heroes of the Second World War, a non-profit dedicated to documenting the experiences of WWII combat vets on video. Driving his family’s Honda Civic — he’s not old enough to rent a car, and sometimes sleeps in the Civic — he travels to meet and film these American heroes.
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Why does he do it? Why is he putting off college to travel by plane, car, and any other way he can think of to meet as many veterans as he can?
“I’ve always been interested in World War II,” he told LifeZette. “The only reason I’m alive today is because of these World War II veterans, so I just wanted to get a better understanding of what the vets endured in combat so that I, a kid, could have a chance at a life today. My generation’s biggest problem is whether or not we have internet connection, and these veterans, at the same age, were wondering whether they were going to get killed — or worse.”
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He added with passion, “They saw their friends get killed in front of them. So many young men — kids — died during World War II, sacrificing their dreams, goals, ambitions and lives. That is a gift to me, to us all.”
Sharma hears courage and sacrifice in the stories of these soldiers. “They lied about their age just to get into the service. They trained and became brothers, entered the worst fighting in the worst war the world has ever seen. No one should ever have to see what they’ve seen, and do what they’ve done, for freedom.”
“This is our history, alive in these heroes!”
For someone so young, it’s clear this teen has already come to understand a great deal. “Imagine what it’s like to see your buddy riddled with bullets. Imagine trying to piece your best friend’s body back together,” he said. “After four or five years of fighting, they came home and were told, ‘Man up and move on.’ PTSD was not diagnosed back then, but these individuals were still able to create an era where man went to the moon. Think about that. The only records were broken ones, for these heroes.”
At this point Sharma has met with some 200 veterans — and he relishes hearing each individual story. “I can’t understand why people aren’t rushing to senior citizen homes to try and speak with these heroes,” he said, sounding genuinely puzzled and a little heartbroken. “They’ve given us everything. Why would a bunch of teens give everything up for their country?”
Sharma keeps a list of WWII heroes who are still alive and willing to be filmed — about 300. He raises money for food, gas and hotels via a GoFundMe page.
Sharma gives each veteran a copy of the interview and full rights to the video. “These are for the veterans themselves — these are their stories,” he noted. He will place an interview on his YouTube page, but only with permission from the veteran.
He even interviewed Joe Pietroforte, who fought in the Battle of the Bulge and stopped a line of German tanks heading for U.S. soldiers. “He was decorated for taking out two German tanks that could have caused a lot of damage to the American troops,” said Sharma.
The teen would be thrilled if every American felt moved enough to go visit a lonely veteran in a senior center.
“They are just sitting there, with all these stories to be told and no one to tell them to,” he said. “What a shame — in a few years all our World War II veterans will be gone. This is our history, alive in these heroes! Everyone should go to a senior center and ask to see a World War II veteran, and take the time to listen to their stories, before it’s too late.”
Americans are benefiting from this teen’s unlikely mission — which is conducted on a shoestring budget, video camera in hand. One person who recently donated to his GoFundMe page wrote to Sharma, “I stopped my car. In the middle of the street at 1 a.m. to listen. To your interview. Of this man who told a story of what he did for his 18 friends and for me on D-Day. I’m 42. Thank you. For connecting us all.”