By Cheryl Pellerin
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Dec. 2, 2011 – Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta yesterday hosted a multi-starred Pentagon welcome for Iraq War veteran and “Dancing with the Stars” champion Jose Rene “J.R.” Martinez.
Martinez, a former Army infantryman who was severely burned by a roadside bomb in Iraq in 2003, also met with Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter, Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and other senior leaders, said Doug Wilson, assistant secretary of defense for public affairs.
“As Martinez made his way down the corridor to Panetta’s office,” Wilson said, “young military aides, seasoned officers and civilian assistants poured out of offices to meet and congratulate the ‘Dancing with the Stars’ winner — who happily accommodated every request for a handshake or photo.”
During the brief visit, he added, Martinez also shook hands with Army Chief of Staff Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, former commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, who made clear his pride in Martinez as a national symbol of the determination and accomplishments of America’s wounded warriors.
Martinez and partner Karina Smirnoff were crowned champions on the ABC television program after a final dancing competition against other contestants Nov. 22 in Los Angeles.
Panetta called Martinez on Nov. 25 to congratulate him on his victory and reiterate his conviction that Martinez stands as a testament to wounded warriors’ strength and resilience.
In 2003, Martinez was a 19-year-old Army infantryman assigned to Company D, 2nd Battalion, 502nd Infantry Regiment of the 101st Airborne Division in Iraq. He was driving a Humvee there when the vehicle hit a roadside bomb.
Martinez suffered smoke inhalation and severe burns to more than 40 percent of his body, including his face and hands.
He was evacuated to Landstuhl, Germany, and later transferred to Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, where he spent 34 months. He has undergone 33 cosmetic and skin-graft surgeries.
While in recovery, Martinez began to visit other patients in the hospital, sharing his story and listening to theirs. Since then, he has spoken to audiences at corporations, veterans groups, nonprofits and schools.
In 2008, Martinez landed a role as an Iraq war veteran on the ABC soap opera, “All My Children,” which led to his “Dancing with the Stars” appearances this year.
Martinez described his visit with Panetta for the Pentagon Channel.
“It was really cool,” he said. “There are a lot of important things happening right now outside J.R. Martinez, so for him and everyone else on his staff to take the time to meet with me was a tremendous honor.”
To Panetta, Martinez said, “Listen, I’m a soldier, I’ll always be a soldier, and I want to share the message from whatever platform that I have. As [the Defense Department is] hammering out ways to take care of our troops in different ways, I want to be able to find a way to express that to the general public.”
Martinez said he never could have imagined such a meeting at the Pentagon back when he joined the Army in 2002.
“It just goes to show that things happen in life,” he said. “As we continue to walk through our life after the adversity, our heads naturally are down because we’re grieving through that process.
“But it’s important for us to pick our heads up through that process,” the former infantryman continued, “because then you see opportunities, you see great things that could potentially be a new beginning for you.”
On Dec. 4 Martinez will visit Fort Campbell, Ky., home of the 101st Airborne Division, where he was stationed before deploying to Iraq.
“I’ve been getting a lot of military support throughout this whole process of being on the show,” he said, “so it’s important for me when I’m close to any kind of base to go and visit these troops and their families and say thank you, sign some autographs, take some pictures and just hang out.”
Martinez said he thought meeting with his military friends would be “a lot tougher” after the Dancing with the Stars win.
“I thought I was going to get a lot of grief from my military friends about wearing rhinestones and ballroom shoes with two-inch heels,” Martinez said. “I thought I was going to get a lot of grief from that, but I guess they kind of left me alone because they’re like, ‘He actually can dance so we have no way to mess with him.'”
The feedback Martinez has received from the troops “has been overwhelming in a positive way,” he said. Troops have told him it’s great to see a fellow soldier succeed, he said, and to see him use his celebrity to be a voice for U.S. troops and their families.
Martinez’s next celebrity appearance is on Jan. 2, 2012, when he will serve as grand marshal of the Tournament of Roses New Year’s Parade in Pasadena, Calif.
Martinez said he’s also working on a book and wants to continue acting and doing motivational speaking.
“I’m booking myself a lot right now to travel the country and share the message of perseverance and positivity and faith,” he said.
Those activities “work together in a lot of ways,” Martinez said, and provide a platform for him to raise awareness about U.S. service members and their families.
“I have been able to be a role model and a voice for a lot of [troops] who don’t feel that they have a voice for themselves,” Martinez said.
“I’ve been able to be a source of inspiration to the families as well,” he added, “to say good things do happen and you’ve just got to be patient and have a great attitude.”