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Twenty-One Steps: Exploring the Depths of Honor, Sacrifice, and Service

Silent Sentinels: Jeff Gottesfeld's Tribute to the Tomb of the Unknown

Can you tell us a bit about yourself and your background as an author?

I'm probably the most imperfect messenger ever for Twenty-One Steps, when you hear my background. I didn't serve in the military, I was a Vietnam war protestor, and I've written everything from teen fictions to soap operas (literally -- I was the associate head writer of The Young and the Restless). I grew up in a family where no one was in the military, and no one had been. And I had a very liberal education, in public school, college, and beyond.

But with experience comes wisdom, I hope. I grew up.  And with my growing up, my respect for the American military as a global force for good has grown to be immense. I have the same feelings about our great nation. We've got a ton of problems, surely, but we still want to be better. That's the American way.

Personally, I'm the eldest of four boys. My three brothers and mom all live in New York City or thereabouts, and I'm the renegade in Los Angeles. My mom, a psychotherapist, just retired at age 89. My de facto wife and I are Jewish and fairly observant.  We grew up 19 miles away from each other in New Jersey, and met here in Los Angeles. I love to write, though the process can be lonely. I'll do it until I can't do it anymore, or run out of ideas.

What inspired you to write a book about the Tomb of the Unknown?

So there's the general inspiration, and the immediate one. The general one is the transformation I experienced over my lifetime, as I came to live around the country (and in France), and developed a clearer sense of the dangers of the world and the crucial role of the United States of America as a force for good. By the time I lived in Nashville in the 1990s (one of the few advantages of being a writer is that there's good geographic mobility), I was visiting national cemeteries on Memorial Day. That led to the immediate inspiration, which was Memorial Day, 2016, in the Los Angeles National Cemetery. I was there with Beth and my stepdaughter AG, and I saw a tombstone amidst the others that said, "Unknown." In that instant, I considered the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier that was 3000 miles to my east, and how little I knew about it. Also, how little I knew about the Tomb Guards. I was determined to write the book by the time we left the cemetery that day.

Could you share some insights into the research process you underwent while writing the book?

Compared to a lot of my books, this was relatively simple. There's a ton of written and visual material on the Tomb, and I took it all in. Then, once I felt like I had the background, I approached the Society of the Honor Guard, Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, and a number of Tomb Guards, for interviews. I did this with intense humility, considering what I had learned. Everyone was eager to help. No exceptions. Then, when they saw that my and Matt Tavares' standard for the book was perfection -- like Line 6 of the Sentinel's Creed -- they were even more eager. We made tweaks and changes that no one else would notice but a Tomb Guard right up until the book went to press. It was the least we could do.

What was the most surprising or intriguing discovery you made during your research?

That people are, well, people. Back in the 1920s, the Tomb was unguarded, and had a lower physical profile than it does now. There's a great view of the District of Columbia from the plaza. So, people came up for the view, and some spread out picnics atop the slab of the Tomb. Matt Tavares depicts this in one of the spreads of the artwork. The Tomb was first guarded by volunteers, and the Tomb Guards took their official post at midnight of July 2, 1937. It has been guarded around the clock since that time.

Did you visit the Tomb of the Unknown in person before working on the book? If so, how did that experience impact your writing?

I did, but as a teen. I didn't get to go back until after the book was published. That was really something. It was very early morning, and I was the only one on the plaza. I must have stood alone on those marble steps for fifteen minutes. Every time I return now, it's like a pilgrimage, in a way.

What was your primary goal in writing this book? Did you have any specific messages or themes you wanted to convey to your readers?

Books better speak for themselves, no? But if there's one thing I want readers to take away from this text, it is that the values of the members of our armed forces -- and by that, I include military spouses and children -- and the values of the Tomb Guards, may veer somewhat from what may be in vogue many places today. But surely values like honor, duty, sacrifice, reverence, discipline, and focus are as crucial as anything else. The Unknowns gave everything, even their names and faces, for us. The Tomb Guards give up to two years on the mat, to the Unknowns. We can give them our appreciation.

Are you planning to write any future books related to the military community?

If so, could you provide a glimpse into the topics or themes you might explore in your upcoming works. Are there any specific aspects or stories within the military community that you feel are often overlooked or underrepresented in literature?

I am, and thank you for asking! My experience with this book brought me into a world that is very different from the one in which I grew up, in Teaneck, New Jersey. I've met so many fascinating servicemembers, veterans, and their families young and old. I've been to places and spoken to groups that would have been unimaginable to me as a boy, or even as a college student. I've loved it all. They tell me their stories. And I know the reality is that if I don't write more in this arena, I don't know who will. To its immense credit, Candlewick Books sees what I'm doing, and has embraced it. A huge thank you to my editor there, Katie Cunningham.

Here's what's upcoming. All my conversations with military brats was the spur for 2026's autumn title, WE ALL SERVE, illustrated by TeMika Grooms, who is herself a brat. She's a brilliant artist, and I can't wait to see what she comes up with for this book about the special lives of brats. Brats look like everyone else, but they sure don't have lives like everyone else.

Also in 2026, illustrated by Matt Tavares, is HONOR FLIGHT, about that remarkable volunteer program that flies veterans and their guardians to D.C. to see the city and their war monuments. I had the privilege of being an Honor Flight guardian a few months ago, and it was a life highlight.

On the creative docket of my computer? I want to do a picture book for kids about the Four Chaplains of the USAT Dorchester, and cook Charles Water David, Jr. of the cutter Comanche that came to the rescue of the Dorchester soldiers after the ship was torpedoed in the North Atlantic. Call it, Four Chaplains and a Cook. One of the most heroic and inspiring stories I've ever heard. I venerate these five men.

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1 Comment

Jazmin Miguel
Jazmin Miguel
Nov 15, 2023

"And with my growing up, my respect for the American military as a global force for good has grown to be immense." I can totally relate!

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