Although he is most famous for shaking his bum on ABC’s Dancing with the Stars; J. R. Martinez is much more than a dancer. He spoke at the Aria Hotel in Las Vegas on Feb. 21.; I was honored to hear his story firsthand. As the entire audience hung on his every word, J.R. laughed and joked about the deepest darkest times in his life and how helping others helped to save him.
Full of charisma, energy and sincerity, J.R. proved to be a truly inspirational speaker. He painted a realistic portrait of what our military personnel endure. Coming from a low income, single parent home, J.R. had dreams of an athletic scholarship in order to attend college. Those dreams were shattered when he was injured his senior year of high school. Figuring he could attend college on the federal government’s dime after a few years of military service, he eagerly joined the Army.
At 19, he completed Army boot camp and was immediately deployed to Afghanistan. He was assigned to a transportation security detail, a relatively simple task that he did several times a day but one that he enjoyed because he knew it meant something to the mission. More importantly, J.R. took pride in being a part of something bigger than him. If you are a cop or service member you a familiar with that sense of pride.
As the youngest in his platoon, J.R.'s sergeant usually tasked him with driving. He and the three others on his team laughed and joked in the vehicle like they always did. Without any prior notice or indication – BOOM – the front tire of their vehicle struck an anti-tank rocket-propelled grenade (RPG). Since they were not in a tank, the blast was extremely devastating and the three others on his team were immediately ejected. J.R. was trapped inside and on fire. It took rescue crews several minutes to find him.
J.R. woke up in the hospital with burns over 40 percent of his body, mostly third degree and on his face. Looking in the mirror was the worst part for him. Doing so caused extreme anger and depression and he “…sunk into the deepest, darkest place he had ever imagined”. He spent 34 months in recovery, enduring over 30 painful surgeries. While still mending himself, J.R. started to visit other wounded soldiers in the hospital.
He successfully cheered up the other soldiers with his visits and it finally clicked for J.R. that again he had a larger purpose, something bigger than himself. He delved into charity work and took his story on the road via motivational speaking opportunities. That parlayed into an acting career on All My Children which eventually led to his recent fame on Dancing with the Stars. Amazingly J.R. took home the trophy for his extraordinary dancing skills when just 8 years earlier he was learning to walk again.
I am not much of a fan of soap operas or reality TV but in this case I appreciate that it brought the reality of battle to millions of viewers. J.R. is just one example of the heroism, bravery and sacrifices that are made by American soldiers every single day. His prominent scars serve as a beacon to the rest of us that the ability to adapt and overcome is an important one. J.R. had very different plans for himself early on – athlete, military, college. Each time those plans were thwarted, J.R. was able to formulate a new plan, albeit uncomfortable and scary, and each time do something bigger than himself.