By Terri Moon Cronk
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Oct. 19, 2011 – At 28, J.R. Martinez already has experienced life as a soldier wounded in combat, as a motivational speaker and as a soap opera actor.
This season, he added another entry to his resume as a contestant in the hit ABC television series “Dancing with the Stars.”
Martinez dances on the show to call attention to the work of U.S. service members and veterans to keep alive their sacrifices, he said in a recent Pentagon Channel interview.
“I was injured, but able to turn it around into something positive to use as a voice for our service members and veterans,” he said.
Whether Martinez and his partner dance a lively jive number or a passionate rumba, he said, he keeps one thought in mind. “Because I want to inspire and move people, I want to do it in such a big way,” he said. “I have to make that impact.”
And to deliver that impact, Martinez gives audiences everything he’s got.
“I have to expose myself and be willing to share who I am — my struggles and not just the joys, the laughter and the jokes,” he said.
Television appearances and a career as a motivational speaker likely weren’t on his mind when Martinez enlisted in the Army in 2002 and joined the 101st Airborne Division’s “Strike” brigade at Fort Campbell, Ky.
He was deployed to Iraq in 2003 when the left front tire of the Humvee he was driving hit a landmine. Three soldiers were thrown from the burning vehicle, but Martinez was trapped inside. With severe burns over 40 percent of his body, Martinez spent the next 34 months recovering at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, where he endured more than 33 skin grafts and reconstructive surgeries.
During his hospital recovery, Martinez had a chance conversation that would change the course of his life. A hospital staff member asked Martinez to share some of his experience to help another service member who had been admitted with burn injuries.
“I didn’t know what I was going to say to the young man,” Martinez said. “I was somewhat intimidated, but after talking to him about 45 minutes, I realized I was able to help him — give him insight and hope — which is something we all want in life.”
That conversation left Martinez wanting to help other people, and he became a motivational speaker in 2004. Fluent in Spanish and English, he traveled the country, sharing his experiences and encouraging resilience and optimism to audiences as varied as veterans’ groups, schools and corporations.
Martinez also became active in a variety of nonprofit veterans organizations. He serves as national spokesman for the Coalition to Salute America’s Heroes, which promotes and supports programs for wounded warriors. News of his work spread quickly, leading to appearances on “Oprah,” “60 Minutes” and CNN.
His career was progressing rapidly, and in 2008, he landed an acting role on the daytime drama “All My Children” playing combat veteran Brot Monroe after a nationwide search to find a real-life soldier to play the part. After Martinez was hired, the character’s injuries were created to match his own.
Martinez continues to balance motivational speaking, charity work and acting, and has begun writing his memoir, according to ABC.
“I think the courage is within me,” Martinez said of his experiences and his successes. “It’s no different than the men and women who go into the military and choose that life. It’s just something that’s instilled in us, and we just do it.”
The “Dancing the Stars” competition continues for Martinez and dance partner Karina Smirnoff tonight and tomorrow on ABC.