“Freedom is not free. If we did not have the goodness of the American military, the world would be a much less pleasant place, not just for Americans but for billions of folks. We’ve got a great thing going.” – Jeff Gottesfeld
This year marks the 100th anniversary of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier that sits perched on a hill in the center of Arlington National Cemetery. To uncover the history of the tomb, Americans for Limited Government (ALG) recently interviewed Jeff Gottesfeld, author of a new children’s book Twenty-One Steps: Guarding the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
The beautifully illustrated book tells the story of the Tomb and the Sentinel Guards who protect it 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Told in the voice of the first Unknown from World War I (chosen to honor all unidentified fallen soldiers), this intensely personal narrative honors the ultimate sacrifice and chronicles how the Tomb Guards keep watch by repeating a pattern of walking precisely 21 steps and then observing 21 seconds silence throughout their shifts. These 21 steps symbolize the highest military honor, the 21-gun salute.
What most shocked Gottesfeld as he researched the book was the reason for the guard itself. A few years after the consecration of the Tomb, on Armistice Day in 1921, “people being people, they started to come for the view, not the meaning,” Gottesfeld told ALG.
“There were picnics and ballgames. On July 2, 1937, the Tomb Guards restored sanctity to this spot.” Since then, the Tomb Guards have maintained a constant sentry around the Tomb.
A Memorial Day visit to the Los Angeles National Cemetery gave Gottesfeld the inspiration for the book. He noticed a grave marked Unknown, and considered the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington and how little he knew about it. “I started to think about what an important shrine it is,” Gottesfeld said. By the time he left the cemetery that day he knew he wanted to write about it.
The book’s illustrator, Matt Tavares told Publisher’s Weekly that he had a similar, immediate reaction to the subject when he received the manuscript. “I read the first page and was in tears. It was so beautifully written and powerful that 30 seconds into reading it, I knew I was going to work on it. There was so much I didn’t know,” Tavares recalled.
The biggest challenge for Tavares was in capturing the Tomb Guards’ standard of perfection in illustration. “You want to make sure every detail is exactly right. They space their medals to 1/64th of an inch, and they notice if it’s off,” he said. Tavares visited the site at different times of year, and spent time with the Tomb Guards, including in their quarters, to hone his portrayal.
Gottesfeld said he has come to believe that the United States military “is the greatest force for good that we have on the planet. Historically that has been the case. I believe it is still the case now. It has saved billions from oppression.”
Twenty-One Steps conveys great reverence for the Tomb and for the soldiers who guard it. “The selfless sacrifice of the Unknown Soldiers and their willingness to give everything including their names and their faces for our country and its values makes them belong to all of us,” Gottesfeld said. “They gave everything. And the Tomb Guards in this pursuit of perfection in service of the Unknowns, they are giving everything. You don’t get that many chances these days to look at the best of America.”
Gottesfeld said the book would be great for home-schooling parents because it teaches children values that often aren’t taught in public schools.
“If you would like to show your kids how striving to be your very, very best at anything, whether it is brushing your teeth, or making your bed, or studying, or being a good family or community member, will elevate you to a place you thought you would never achieve, this is the book,” Gottesfeld said.
Gottesfeld urges all Americans to support our service members. “If you’ve got your kids in a classroom, your kids should know whose parents are in the military and who are the military kids there. They should be extra good to them.
“On every day, we should stop and remember our military,” Gottesfeld added. “Freedom is not free. If we did not have the goodness of the American military, the world would be a much less pleasant place, not just for Americans but for billions of folks. We’ve got a great thing going.”
You can find Twenty-One Steps: Guarding the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier wherever books are sold.
Catherine Mortensen is Vice President of Communications at Americans for Limited Government.
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