By Cheryl Pellerin
American Forces Press Service
The injured Army Iraq War veteran who earned first place with his partner on the television show “Dancing with the Stars” symbolizes the strength and tenacity possessed by the nation’s wounded warriors, Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta said.
“I am writing to extend my most sincere congratulations on your ‘Dancing with The Stars’ victory,” Panetta wrote in a recent letter addressed to Jose Rene “J.R.” Martinez.
“Over the course of this competition,” the secretary added, “your spirit captivated the nation and your victory sends a powerful message about the strength and resilience of our wounded warriors.”
Martinez and partner Karina Smirnoff were crowned champions on the ABC reality program after a final dancing competition against other contestants Nov. 22 in Los Angeles.
Panetta also made a phone call to Martinez today, Pentagon spokesman Navy Capt. John Kirby said. Panetta again congratulated Martinez on his victory and reiterated his conviction that Martinez stands as testament to the strength and the resilience of wounded warriors.
During his call to Martinez, Panetta also expressed his admiration for the effort expended by the dancers in preparing for each routine, Kirby said.
During his phone conversation with Panetta, Martinez credited his military training and experience for his performance and his ability to prepare for the show, Kirby said.
The Iraq veteran also reaffirmed his pride at having served in uniform, Kirby said.
Panetta concluded the 10-minute call by inviting Martinez to the Pentagon for a personal meeting. Plans are now in the works to arrange that meeting in the very near future, Kirby said.
On “Dancing with the Stars,” celebrities are paired with professional dancers and over several months perform predetermined dances and compete against other dancers for judges’ points and audience votes.
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, the former infantryman began to visit other patients in the hospital, sharing his story and listening to theirs. Since then, Martinez has spoken to audiences at corporations, veterans groups, nonprofits and schools.
In 2009, Martinez was honored by the nonprofit Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America with the Veterans Leadership Award, given in recognition of his dedication to the nation’s newest generation of veterans.
“In the eight years since your injury,” Panetta wrote in his letter to Martinez, “you have done extraordinary work assisting other wounded warriors and raising public awareness of the challenges our service members and their families face when they return home, and I would like to commend you for your tireless efforts in this arena.”
The secretary added, “You represent an entire generation — what I call the next greatest generation — that has been willing to put their lives on the line for our country.”
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.
In his letter to Martinez, Panetta wrote of his belief that the Army veteran would “continue to be a passionate advocate for our wounded warriors and all our veterans in the years ahead.”
“So, thank you for your continuing service, for your sacrifice,” the secretary added, “and please accept my warmest wishes for a joyous holiday season for you and your family.”