Life In The Trenches: In melting-pot America, a young Indian-American makes World War II combat veterans his very own heroes

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Rishi Sharma, who just turned 20, has been documenting the lives of World War II combat veterans, since high school. (Photo courtesy Rishi Sharma from www.heroesofthesecondworldwar.com)

Rishi Sharma, 20, lives an uncomfortable life by most accounts – driving in his Honda Civic from one city to another, eating mostly at fast-food joints, and sleeping nights in the backseat of his car. But he considers it a small sacrifice if at all, in fact rather a privilege. After all, the “Greatest Generation” of World War II combat veterans who spent time in the trenches protecting their country, and their friends and fellow-soldiers, had it much worse, is his reasoning.

As Veterans Day approaches Nov. 11, Sharma, who spoke to News India Times from his car on the road to Raleigh, North Carolina, to interview a veteran, is the epitome of how far the Indian-American community has come to embrace the mainstream American narrative.

He has chalked up more than 750 interviews with those who lived to tell the tale — of seeing friends and enemies die in the trenches beside them,  on battlefields far and wide, then come back home to become husbands, fathers, grandfathers and great grandfathers, to take the nation to greater heights, something veteran journalist Tom Brokaw also tracks in his 1998 book, The Greatest Generation.

Sharma’s project is far more ambitious. He wants to document each of these stories – which according to his estimates, equal the 50,000 living combat veterans out of some 525,000 World War II veterans in the country. Sharma singled out those in the infantry, the foot-soldiers on the frontlines that are the first to become fodder on enemy lines;, and it’s obvious why he is attracted to that segment – “When I was little I used to want to be a Marine but when I thought of a Marine, I thought of a man with nothing but a rifle in his hands and the shirt on his back. I have always felt that these men are my heroes and I have always been interested in WWII,” he explains on his website heroesofthesecondworldwar.com.

“The only reason I am alive today is because of these heroic men. They went in as ordinary boys in extraordinary circumstances which churned them out as men,” Sharma adds.

It appears he is willing to spend the rest of his days doing exactly what he has been doing since the end of his sophomore year in high school.

“Every single day of their lives has been about other people,” he told this interviewer. So he could do the same by dedicating his days to them.

Born and brought up in Agoura Hills, California,  Sharma dismisses speculation about why the immense love for this group of combat veterans pulls so greatly at his heartstrings. If anything, he questions why such a question needs to be asked.

“It’s not something I can eloquently state,” he says eloquently, “Ever since I was a kid I’ve been fascinated by World War II, and soon as I discovered they were still among us, I have wanted to talk to them.”

Few if any teachers in his high school knew about Sharma’s passion or his project, he recalls. “I wasn’t finding anything beneficial,” in the education he was getting at high school, he says, and it did not keep his interest. Which explains why he  occasionally cut classes to visit nursing homes to interview combat veterans living in those facilities in Agoura Hills. He continued his search on a wider scale after graduating.

His conscience, it appears from his account, would not let him do anything else, and his single-mindedness has not limited, his knowledge.

“India had the largest volunteer army and under the British, it fought in the East, Japan, Germany, and in Europe. India played a huge part in the Second World War,” Sharma told News India Times when told he was being interviewed for an Indian-American news outlet.

He wants others to share the excitement of what to him is a serious venture. At the same time, he sounds disappointed with society in general, but especially with his own generation, upset by what he sees as a lack of empathy for the millions killed in that war and Americans who lost their lives and those who survived the horrors.

Rishi Sharma, who has interviewed som 750 Second World War combat veterans, seen here with one of them. (Photo courtesy Rishi Sharma at www.heroesofthesecondworldwar.com)

Asked what he does in his spare time, any vacations, and about friends his own age, he shoots back – “It never happens that I have a gap of several days. My heroes are World War Two combat veterans and I spend my days with them.”

“I want to absorb the gravity of their sacrifices and hardships, their knowledge and their wisdom,” he says in a video on his website.

“All the younger generations since World War Two are very soft,” Sharma opines.

And what about his generation?  “They seem to be more interested in themselves. People are so obsessed with social media and themselves, and not (about the fact) that people have died for them. It’s very upsetting to see people in nursing homes with no one even coming to see them … and they gave so much,” he stops.

His website numerous pictures and stories of his interviews with veterans. It is being updated he says. The number of interviews is increasing at a faster pace. Each day, Sharma says he tries to interview at least two veterans, each interview taking about 3 to 4 hours. Ninety nine percent of the interviews are in video form.

Asked what has stood out from all these interviews, Sharma gives a moving account. “The biggest thing is just how gruesome and horrible combat in World War Two was. Because it was hand-to-hand combat. That was the only one where you saw your friend killed next to you, saw the enemy in the eye, the smell of death, wondering if you would make it to the next day, or next moment.”

His passion requires a lot of research and planning, he emphasizes. Apart from general and targeted, as well as premium Internet searches, he keeps track of events around the country, identifies specifically the infantrymen, and finds their numbers in local directories. But that alone does not assure that a veteran would talk to him. “Some veterans don’t want the interview, but they usually come around,” says Sharma from his experience. “And because of the amount of research I have done, I am able to speak to them so they feel like I am one of them,” says the young man who just turned twenty.

“Most of them feel like at least there’s someone who cares, who understands them, and they want to get it off their chest,” says Sharma. Many ask him to stay the night when he visits them, but he refuses their offer.

Besides, “It’s so much easier to sleep in the car. Especially when I think to myself, ‘I know what all you went through, I can never take more’,” Sharma says.

Since CBSNews ran an article on him last December, things have got a bit easier. Donations to Sharma’s GoFundMe link have given him more mobility. He’s put around 45,000 miles on the car since then.

“I have decided to dedicate my life to interviewing these veterans and bring awareness to their sacrifices,” Sharma says on his website. But he is realistic and is reaching out to others to join him. He tried reaching out to high profile individuals like Brokaw, but was unsuccessful. He is open to the idea of sharing his material with a museum. However, he said he has not yet reached out to institutions like the Library of Congress or National Public Radio’s Storycorps, which is audio-documenting the extraordinary lives of every-day Americans.

“I’m only one person. My goal is to create a TV series about World War II veterans,” he told this interviewer. “I’m looking to other people to get involved along with me.” He has set down a series of steps and says they are easy to follow. “Anyone can do this. I’m just hoping others will.”