By Camille De Beus
Daily Press Intern
Rishi Sharma is on a race. Specifically, he is on a race against time.
Every day, about 430 American World War II Veterans die, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs. Every day, Sharma tries to beat time and save the veterans’ stories by interviewing them for his organization, Heroes of the Second World War.
“Heroes of the Second World War’s mission is to film interview and recognize all the surviving veterans who saw combat in World War Two,” the Heroes of the Second World War website reads. “ … By film interviewing these men … we are giving them an opportunity to share their last words with the world and their family.”
Though Sharma is located in the L.A. area, he is attempting to interview all surviving World War II veterans around the world. To him, these interviews are a way of bringing the veterans’ stories back to life, in hopes that history will not repeat itself.
“I want to make these veterans understand that people are thankful and want to remember them,” Sharma said. “That’s the high and mighty thing, for them to be remembered through generations, for people to see who they were. It was real people doing real things, not just numbers in a history book or blurbs on the History channel.”
Sharma only interviews veterans who have seen combat. Usually, he interviews the veterans at their homes. He inquires about the veteran’s life before joining the Army, during service, after the war and the lessons the veteran wishes to impart on the world.
“It’s kind of like a living obituary in a sense that just goes four to six hours in detail,” Sharma said. “It lets them get a load off their chest. It comes to the point in their lives where they’re starting to talk about their times of service. It’s bad timing because they’re all dying so fast, but at least we’re able to get them to talk now.”
In addition to preserving history, Sharma also hopes that his project will raise awareness about the lack of attention our society pays to veterans in cities everywhere, starting in the L.A. area with Santa Monica.
“The vast majority of veterans don’t have somebody that they can go to when they’re in trouble,” Sharma said. “They can’t do everything on their own. They rely on someone else. It’s really an odd situation because they’ve never been in that situation before. They’ve done so much for everyone else all the time, and now they’re the ones who are relying on other people.”
Ideally, Sharma wants everyone from government employees to citizens to seek out World War II veterans and spend time with them.
“Make [the veteran] feel valued,” Sharma said. “He has no one to talk to, so meet him now and then during the week. If you can’t meet, call and say, ‘Thank you.’ I just want to make sure that their love is revered. That people are thankful for them and that they haven’t been forgotten. The reason that we can live day to day is because of them.”
Sharma is not alone on his quest to preserve history and garner appreciation for veterans. Lamont Duncan, State Junior Vice Commander of the California Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW), spoke about the importance of veterans’ stories.
“We don’t ever want to forget [World War II veterans’] impact on the world,” Duncan said. “A lot of people say we would have been speaking German or Japanese if it weren’t for the World War II [veterans], so keeping their memory alive is very important … it’s like anything else in history, those that lived it, know it the best. Most of the time, word to word and word to mouth is probably the best way to preserve that history.”
Some of Sharma’s desires regarding veteran treatment are already being fulfilled. Santa Monica Elks Lodge member and Marine Corps wife Ann Scully described multiple ways that the Elks Lodge shows veterans their appreciation.
“Our bylaws say we will never forget the veterans, and therefore we do a lot of programs for them,” Scully said. “We have big barbecues for them, we collect clothing for them and we entertain them. We are very, very involved with doing things for our veterans. We also have them at our lodge for dinners and other things that we do for them. They deserve it, they’re the ones that protect us here at home.”
While Sharma is still looking for others to help him spend the days interviewing veterans, Heroes of the Second World War is an organization about more than preserving history.
“The point of me telling you this is that after … all those World War II veterans have been serviced in the Santa Monica area, the job still isn’t done because we can still make their last years really good ones,” Sharma said. “We can give them a proper send-off: one in which they understand the gravity of what they did and how thankful people are, and people show them that it’s such an amazing thing.”
Visit www.heroesofthesecondworldwar.org for more information.