Meet the 24-year-old racing against time to keep the memory of WWII veterans alive

After years of COVID-19 border closures, a California man dedicated to traveling the world to interview veterans from the Second World War has returned to Ontario to continue his interviews.

Rishi Sharma is back in Toronto to interview combat veterans after 2 years of border closures

Rishi Sharma interviews Vernon Cooper, a veteran from the Second World War. Sharma says he's racing against time to capture veterans' stories, a project constrained by both time and money. (Paul Borkwood/CBC)

Rishi Sharma remembers the first time he shared his gratitude with a real-life hero.

He called up American Second World War veteran Lyle Bouck after reading about him in the book Citizen Soldiers during high school. Without him, Sharma says, he wouldn't have the free life he leads today.

"He was telling me all these stories, and it struck me that I'm holding his chapter in one hand, the other hand, I'm holding the phone," said Sharma, 24.

"That really made me realize there's a lot of these stories out there," said Sharma, originally from California. "I wondered, if people are capturing it, how can I get involved?"

That's why Sharma has spent the past five years interviewing combat veterans across Canada, the U.S., the U.K., and Australia, with the goal of memorializing every surviving veteran from the Second World War. 

And now after two years of border closures, he's finally back in Ontario with 45 interviews lined up and searching for more, knowing he has little time to spare.

As of March 2021, Veterans Affairs Canada says there are 25,500 war service veterans in Canada who served in the Second World War and the Korean War. With most veterans being 90 years old and up, Rishi says he's racing against time.

WATCH: Keeping the stories of veterans alive

A race against time: saving the memories of war veterans

2 years ago
Duration 2:18
Featured VideoAfter COVID-19 border closures kept him out of the country, 24-year-old Rishi Sharma is back in Canada, racing against the clock to continue his goal of interviewing all remaining Second World War veterans.

Pressing forward

For the last two weeks, Sharma has been living out of a rental car, making his way throughout the GTA and smaller Ontario cities.

He operates under his non-profit, Heroes of the Second World War, which was created in 2016 and registered in his home state. Although he has a team of over 20 volunteers across the countries he operates in, he does the brunt of the researching, editing, interviewing and traveling himself to keep costs down — which means he put other parts of his life on hold.

"I don't have a social life. Literally, for the last five years, I've not been home," says Sharma.

Rishi Sharma says he's interviewed hundreds of veterans from the Second World War. Pictured with Sharma is Stewart Bray from the Royal Hamilton Light Infantry. (Submitted by Rishi Sharma)

After his trip is done and he runs out of interview leads, he says he'll return to the U.S., unsure of what comes next.

"I don't want to think of a situation where I'm not able to interview veterans, and that their stories are lost because of money of all the things," said Sharma.

Sharma worries he could be forced to stop filming altogether after spending the $120,000 he raised in donations and maxing out his credit cards. But while he's trying his best to fundraise to keep the project going, his deeper hope is other people will join him on this journey.

"I'm hoping other people will get involved in their own areas and start interviewing veterans as well."

'The opportunity to live forever'

The Royal Canadian Legion, Canada's largest veteran support and community service organization, says while it doesn't run or fund similar film projects like Sharma's, it supports the remembrance these type of projects promote.

"We know in many cases people are helping keep interesting and compelling stories of Veterans alive, and that is something we commend," said Nujma Bond, a spokesperson for the Legion.

Rishi Sharma stands beside Jim Parks, a D-Day veteran of the Royal Winnipeg Rifles. (Submitted by Rishi Sharma)

Veterans Affairs Canada shares a similar sentiment, but runs its own veteran interview initiative. 

A statement from spokesperson Marc Lescoutre says although it's the mandate of Veterans Affairs Canada to promote remembrance, organizations dedicated to memorializing veteran service are encouraged and could be financially supported through its own funding programs.

"We encourage all Canadians to remember, and to express gratitude and appreciation for Veterans, the fallen and those who continue to serve."

Sharma says despite the financial and emotional hardship, he's determined to continue until every last veteran has had a chance to have their story told.

"Once you get a veteran on camera, you're giving them the opportunity to live forever," says Sharma.

"I can't deprive anyone of that opportunity, especially people who sacrificed so much for people like me to exist."

With files from Paul Borkwood