Iraq War veteran J.R. Martinez has become a household name by turning tragedy into triumph. After suffering severe burns as a result of a roadside bomb explosion, the former Soldier is now widely known as an actor, author, radio personality and motivational speaker who is an inspiration to fellow veterans and countless others. ACG interviewed Martinez while he was preparing to film his TV show “SAF3,” in which he plays Alfonso Rivera, a Los Angeles paramedic/firefighter and U.S. Air Force Pararescue team member.
What was it like to win the fall 2011 “Dancing With the Stars” competition?
MARTINEZ: It was surreal, and for three months I worked really hard with my partner, Karina Smirnoff, and put in a lot to be the best that I can be. But it allowed me to believe that a lot of the people that were watching that show supported me and voted for me. It allowed me to put a trophy above my head [saying] that I was the winner of Season 13!
You were also the 2012 grandmarshal of the Tournament of Roses Parade, correct?
MARTINEZ: That was actually an experience I wasn’t necessarily prepared for. What I mean is that when they asked me if I would be grand marshal, I honestly didn’t really understand the caliber and the role of being grand marshal for the Tournament of Roses. I get to the event where we’re going to make the announcement and they take me into this room where they have a picture of all the grand marshals over the years, and I realized this is a big responsibility. Once there, I was getting the energy from hundreds of thousands of people in attendance. It was an amazing experience!
How were you severely injured in Iraq?
MARTINEZ: I was driving a Humvee through a city called Karbala to provide security and escort different convoys. On April 5, 2003, we were escorting this convoy to the city when my front left tire all of a sudden ran over a roadside bomb. There were four of us in the vehicle, and the other three guys were thrown out, all at various distances. However, I was trapped inside the vehicle and completely conscious, and within a matter of seconds, it was engulfed in flames. At age 19, I thought that I was going to die, but there were a lot of factors that just kept me fighting to not give up, as much as my body would allow. I thought if I’m going to die, at least let me die back in the States and not here, where my mom can see me and actually kiss me goodbye. I sustained burns over 34 percent of my body, but the biggest threat was severe inhalation damage. So they were not sure if I could pull through as far as having the strength and the energy to fight all of the internal things I was going through.
What was your experience regarding your sister Annabel that day?
MARTINEZ: This is a really beautiful story. My family is from El Salvador, and years ago my mom got a call and was told that my sister had passed away due to an illness that she was born with. Well, I went to El Salvador at age 9, and my mom took me to my sister’s burial site to visit her, and for some odd reason, I was very emotional and crying. My whole family was confused because I had never met my sister.
When I was 19 and trapped inside that truck and I felt my life was going to end, all of a sudden an image of my sister presented herself and she said to me, “You’re going to be fine.” And then she said, “Mommy,” and her image went away. I remember sharing that story with my mother in the hospital when I came out of my medically induced coma, and we agreed Annabel’s our guardian angel.
How many Soldiers with similar injuries have you met?
MARTINEZ: Thousands. I’m used to working with nonprofits, and I’ve attended a lot of conferences where we meet with hundreds of veterans. I have visited a lot of troops, and it’s important for me to do that when I’m in a city to see if there’s any kind of military presence in the area. It’s more just to visit them to try to pick their spirits up. It’s important for me to find the time and energy to visit with these service members and their families as well.
Is there one Soldier who stands out?
MARTINEZ: Absolutely. There’s one young man in Tampa who was in the Army and he sustained an injury in Iraq, and not only did he have one leg amputated, he’d also lost some of his fingers. He’s 20 years old and has a traumatic brain injury and burns throughout 60 percent of his body, and he’s also blind. I visited him in the hospital in San Antonio, Texas, and he whispered, “Thank you. I appreciate it.” I sympathize with him, but there’s no special treatment. He’s one of the guys, and I play jokes with him all the time. He drives on, which is what we’re told [to do] in the Army.
Is there one moment that particularly touched you?
MARTINEZ: A couple of years ago I spoke at this high school locally in California, and afterward I noticed one young lady who was crying. I gave her a hug and said, “I don’t know what it is, and you don’t have to tell me, but just hang in there. It’s going to be okay.” She said, “Okay, thank you.”
About six months later, when I was on “Dancing With the Stars,” I got a letter from that young girl, who said that day when we met she was actually suicidal. She wrote, “Here I am thinking all these things, and then all of a sudden I see you come on TV on ‘DWTS,’ and I was reminded of everything you said to us that day when you came to the high school. I’m here to tell you that I’m no longer suicidal.”
What leaders in history do you most admire?
MARTINEZ: Growing up I didn’t really have that much of a military presence [in my life], so for me sports figures were my heroes. Being a young man and playing football and thinking of one day being a professional football player, the guys for me were [Dallas Cowboys star players] Emmitt Smith, Troy Aikman and Jay Novacek. It was always sports related.
What are the main traits of the leaders you admire?
MARTINEZ: Their ability to communicate, like former President Bill Clinton. I’ve had the really cool opportunity to meet him on three occasions, and he actually remembered me, and that was a special moment. But to see how when they speak they command and control the message is something I’ve always loved.
Do you have an interest in military history?
MARTINEZ: I appreciate military history, and the military taught me that I can do anything. It’s a long line of men and women that believe it’s about other people before themselves, and they take pride in that, appreciate that, and love that. You’re taught in the military to survive, and you’re put in situations that expand the idea of survival, and that’s the biggest thing that the military has taught me and how it’s prepared me for life. The military helped make my core stronger to continue so that when I’m lying down, my core is so strong that I can sit back up.
John Ingoldsby conducted this interview. He is a leading writer on the intersection of sports and the military and is president of IIR Sports & Entertainment Inc. (IIRsports.com), a public relations and media firm in Boston.
Originally published in the May 2014 issue of Armchair General.