(Editor’s Note: This story is a follow-up to “From Hospital to Hollywood: A Soldier’s Story,” a profile of J.R. Martinez published in the February 2011 edition of Soldiers magazine. http://www.army.mil/article/50855/)
By now, most of America has heard of J.R. Martinez, the veteran-turned-actor-turned-dancer who amazed “Dancing with the Stars” judges as he waltzed, jived and tangoed his way into the hearts of viewers across the country.
It wasn’t always that way. Cpl. Jose Rene Martinez of the 101stAirborne Division was once indistinguishable from the thousands of other young American Soldiers who streamed into Iraq in March 2003.
Like many of them, Martinez was young – only 19 – naïve and inexperienced. He had enlisted for the usual reasons: to get an education; to travel; to thank the country that had given his single, immigrant mother so much; and, just maybe, to “become a man.” He didn’t know how or why he had ended up in a war zone.
After less than a month in Iraq, Martinez’s life changed forever.
His Humvee had hit a landmine and he became trapped inside the burning vehicle for 10 to 15 minutes. Conscious the entire time and in “unspeakable pain,” Martinez thought he was going to die.
He suffered burns over 40 percent of his body. When Martinez awoke from a medically induced coma in Brooke Army Medical Center at Fort Sam Houston, Texas, a few weeks later, he was dazed, confused and still in terrible pain. Where was he? Why wouldn’t the nurses and doctors let him look in a mirror? “What the hell is going on?” he wondered.
He begged to see his face, explaining that there was no way he could come to terms with his injuries if he didn’t know what they were.
Nurses reluctantly brought him a mirror and when he looked at his reflection, Martinez saw a stranger. His face was puffy and red and the skin that hadn’t melted away was badly scarred and swollen. He was even missing an ear.
“I think that was really the first time that I was able to take it in and say ‘Wow. This is really bad,’” Martinez remembered. He feared he would never have a normal life, that no woman would ever want him again. (Martinez is now expecting a baby with his long-time girlfriend.) In his darkest moments, he wished he had been left for dead in the desert.
Grueling days, weeks and years of wound care and therapy stretched ahead (to date, he’s had 33 surgeries). Surgeons attached skin grafts and removed excessive scar tissue from Martinez’s face and hands while painful physical and occupational therapies helped him move his arms again.
Scar tissue tends to be very thick and stiff, and it must be carefully stretched, explained Maj. David Admire, one of Martinez’s many occupational therapists. “What we did initially was a lot of wound care … positioning, a lot of splinting, a lot of getting his hands in the right position, because when the scar forms, it contracts. It makes the joints super-tight. You’ve got to preserve the range of motion while it heals. So we did a lot of splinting, a lot of using his hands, getting used to using his hands again. His mouth was burned. We did a lot of splinting in the mouth to keep that mouth open because if it contracts, you can’t open your mouth. So that was a big thing too, and his eyes.”
“It wasn’t easy,” Martinez admitted. “There were a lot of difficult days. There were a lot of difficult nights. There was a lot of anger, depression and there was a lot of questioning … but I fought through it and I stayed strong and I believed and I had … a smile throughout it all. I said to myself, ‘I am not going to be a victim. I am going to be a survivor.’”
Once he found a way to cope with his own injuries, Martinez realized that many of the young men and women who continued to arrive at BAMC each day, many with injuries worse than his, were even more depressed than he had been. He began to visit them, laughing and joking, trying to raise their spirits.
Before he knew it, Martinez was talking about resilience on “60 Minutes” and “Oprah.” Eventually he was out of the hospital and the Army. He became a full-time motivational speaker, then landed a role playing an injured veteran on ABC’s now-cancelled soap, “All My Children.” Then, his loyal fans began a campaign: Wouldn’t it be great if he went on “Dancing with the Stars?”
“I was always like, ‘Yeah, that would be fun,’” he said. “When news broke that ‘All My Children’ was going off the air … I thought to myself, ‘What about it?’”
A friend called the “Dancing with the Stars” casting department and a few months later they offered Martinez a role. Remembering that just eight years before, he had nearly died, that he hadn’t known how he would go on with his life, Martinez found himself choked up. The emotion he felt, he explained, is hard to describe.
“Dancing with the Stars” would also be a way for millions of people to hear Martinez’s story. His newfound fame would serve as a platform for him to advocate for thousands of other wounded Soldiers and highlight some of the wounded veterans’ charities he supports.
“Everything I get into, I think about what impact is it going to have?” said Martinez. “That’s the only thing I have been doing for the past 8 years … trying to pass on to wounded troops the understanding that ‘you too can.’ You can have an impact. … Go out there and be a voice. Go out there and … show them what it is we’re capable of doing.
“Being able to talk to the guys definitely helps me, and I don’t think they realize that,” he added later during a visit to his old unit, the 101st, at Fort Campbell, Ky. “It probably helps me more than … them. My military career was cut short because of my injury in Iraq in 2003, but … I can continue to serve in a different capacity and this is the way I do it, by talking to the troops, talking to their families, trying to encourage them, trying to inspire them, trying to light that fire under their butts and say, ‘You know what? You can still do it man, and you’re not alone. There’s a lot of us out there who feel your pain and understand what you’re going through.’ (That’s) my way of saying I’m still one of the guys and I’m taking care of my guys.”
Martinez even filled the “Dancing with the Stars” audience with veterans during the week of Veterans Day, and they loudly cheered him on.
Throughout his stint on the show, Martinez had to learn complicated dances like tangos, salsas and waltzes in five days or less, which meant six- or seven-hour rehearsals a day, every day. And while he twisted his ankle during one particularly ambitious routine, Martinez said he was fortunate that most of his war injuries didn’t affect his dancing. He can’t bend his right arm all the way, however, so staying in frame and laying the arm flat against his partner’s back was a challenge.
In fact, his injuries almost lost him his hands, according to Admire, who thinks the scars themselves were probably uncomfortable – at the very least. “Just to be able to stand under the lights … you’ve got to understand that with burned flesh, scars don’t sweat,” he said. “When he’s moving under those hot lights that he’s got to be (under) on TV, and all that moving around, that’s a challenge. Lifting his dance partner up, all of those things were amazing. I’m an able-bodied guy and I’m thinking that lifting that female up and throwing her around on the dance floor, that’s got to be tough.”
That didn’t stop Martinez and his partner, Karina Smirnoff, from racking up perfect and near-perfect scores week after week, nor did it stop the pair from taking home the coveted mirror-ball trophy.
Winning was “an amazing feeling,” Martinez said in a recent interview. He credited the Army with much of his success.
“Knowing that I was going to have to dance in front of millions of people … was difficult, but as Soldiers, (you are trained) to just drive on and to get through it and adapt and overcome,” he explained. “So when times were getting tough, I would just think about what I had already been through and how I was able to overcome that and persevere. (I would) just think about the days … in Iraq, when it had been a long day and the mission was tough, but you still pushed through and you still had to get through a couple more hours.”
His success is also a testament to the care he received back at BAMC, Martinez added, praising the doctors, nurses and therapists who took such good care of him.
“The way medicine and the care of our troops has improved, not just in the eight years that I’ve been home, but over decades, is amazing,” he said. “There’s plenty of injuries out there, troops who probably wouldn’t ever have had an opportunity to make it in the past, but because of the hard work of a lot of people, (they have) more of an option. It’s given them options to come home, and to continue to have a productive life. To everyone that’s in that field, thank you very much for all your hard work, for your sweat and your tears. Sometimes it gets frustrating. Sometimes you don’t see the payoff right away, but just know that there’s a lot of people out there, troops like me, who have gone on to succeed and greatly appreciate all the hard work that they put into giving us that chance at life.”
After his “Dancing with the Stars” win, Martinez met with Secretary of Defense Leon E. Panetta (and taught Panetta a few dance steps), visited wounded warriors at Fort Campbell and served as grand marshal of the Rose Bowl’s Tournament of Roses parade, a huge thrill since former presidents have marshaled the parade, and Martinez once dreamed of playing college football. He’s working on a memoir about his experiences and wants to continue acting, motivational speaking and, most importantly, advocating for wounded veterans.
“You look at me and you obviously know that I’ve been through something,” he said. “But don’t think that just because a young man or a young woman looks perfectly fine … that they don’t have things that they’re dealing with. There’s a lot of scars that are beneath … with PTSD and TBI (traumatic brain injury). It’s something that our troops are facing … on a day-to-day basis.
“And what I say to (everyone who) faces those things, who has those symptoms and is fighting and trying to survive every single day, is to continue to fight, continue to stay strong, continue to be positive, continue to just believe in yourself. … Life is beautiful. Life is worth living.”