Veteran, actor J. R. Martinez speaks on service and adversity

At 19 years old, Martinez enlisted in the U.S. Army, where his Humvee hit a roadside bomb that burned 34 percent of his body.

Standing on the stage of the Missouri Theatre, U.S. Army veteran J. R. Martinez separated the stage into boxes, each one being someone else’s comfort zone. Each person, whom a box represents, he said is dealing with his or her own adversity.

Martinez addressed the crowd as the Veterans Week speaker. People may recognize him from “Dancing With the Stars” or his role on “Days of Our Lives,” but before he was on TV, Martinez was a soldier.

At 19-years-old, Martinez enlisted in the U.S. Army. He planned on serving three years. While in Iraq, his Humvee hit a roadside bomb, where 34 percent of his body was burned.

For the last 11 and a half years of his life, he has had the opportunity to tell his story and make a difference in the lives of people not only affected by war, but by those who are simply looking for guidance.

Starting at 9-years-old, Martinez faced his first obstacle — a move from his home state of Louisiana to Arkansas.

“I had three things going against me,” Martinez said. “I was being picked on because I was the new kid, I had a deep southern Cajun accent, and the other kids found out, so strike number three, that my middle name is Rene.”

Because of this, Martinez learned to adapt and focus on being himself. One of the ways he did this was by putting all his attention on the game he loved — football.

Martinez had a dream that one day he would play football in college and then go into the NFL.

“I had a long-term goal,” he said. “But in order to do that, I had to have a lot of short-term goals for motivation that kept me focused.”

His dream was cut short when he realized his academics were subpar.

“They always tell you to write down your goals for where you want to be in the next five, 10 or 20 years,” Martinez said. “But there’s a reason you do that with a pencil instead of a pen. Sometimes the plan changes and you have to change it.”

Martinez said he was focusing on not only where he wanted to end up, but how he was going to get there. He fixed his game plan after he talked to an Army recruiter.

His mother shot down his idea immediately.

Martinez graduated high school in 2002, just months after the Sept. 11 World Trade Center attacks. His mother knew the possibility of her only son getting deployed was high, and she wasn’t willing to lose him.

“I didn’t blame her,” Martinez said. “If I were in her position, I would probably say the same thing.”

After some time, he convinced his mother that the Army was the best course of action for him so he could force himself out of the box that was his comfort zone. He was sent to basic training camp at Fort Benning, Georgia, in September 2002 and graduated three months later as an infantryman.

Martinez was assigned his unit in January 2003 with men whom had served at least five years in the Army.

“These guys knew about life,” Martinez said. “These guys were tough. These guys were infantryman.”

One day, Martinez’s sergeant came to him and told him that he wanted him to be prepared because he was going to be deployed some time soon. Because he had just graduated from basic training, Martinez didn’t think he was going anywhere anytime soon. He was only 19-years-old.

“I thought war was a possibility, but I never thought war would be my reality,” Martinez said.

Two months later in March 2003, Martinez was on a plane with the rest of his unit to Iraq. His job there was to secure areas and safely transport convoys of the military from one location to another.

On April 5, 2003, the left front tire of the Humvee he was driving hit a roadside bomb.

The three other passengers were thrown variance distances from the vehicle and walked away with minor physical injuries, while Martinez was trapped inside. Seconds later, he and the vehicle were engulfed in flames.

“Here I was, at 19-years-old, trapped inside a burning truck completely conscious,” Martinez said. “I could see my hands changing in ways that we only see in those high-dollar Hollywood movies. I could feel this pain coming over my face. I was screaming and yelling at the top of my lungs for someone to please come and pull me out.”

Even though he was only trapped inside the truck for five minutes, Martinez said he slowly started to lose hope because it felt like he was inside for five years.

“It’s plenty of time to think about all the things about life,” Martinez said. “It’s plenty of time to think about how my mom’s life was completely going to change, knowing she’s going to lose her only son.”

He said he gradually started to come to terms with the fact that he was going to die. As Martinez struggled to keep his eyes open, two of his sergeants reached in and pulled him out of the vehicle.

Following the initial injury, it was an uphill battle to recovery. Martinez spent three months in the hospital and had 34 surgeries to reconstruct the burns that took over a third of his body.

Eventually, he wanted to look in the mirror at what the inferno had done to his appearance. He was able to look into the mirror for three seconds before he pushed it away and had to ask why.

Distraught and discouraged, Martinez considered himself alive but said he never thought he’d live again, until his mother persuaded him otherwise.

“She told me, ‘you have to stay strong,’” Martinez said. “‘You have to believe it’s going to get better.’ I was willing to listen to her, not just hear her.”

Once he was discharged from the hospital, Martinez continued to go back regularly for appointments. Six months after he was injured, his nurse asked him if he’d be willing to talk to a victim who was struggling with his injuries.

Though originally he didn’t want to, Martinez found that because he was a veteran himself, he was able to get through to others. After that initial visit, he continued to see patients every day in between his own appointments.

“It gave me purpose,” Martinez said. “Every day I woke up with purpose. I was helping somebody else by doing something as simple as talking about my own experience.”

Martinez emphasized that people have to be willing to listen and grow. His newfound weapon isn’t an M16, he said, but his voice.

“You have to believe that every adversity you’ve been through in life, whether it’s major or it’s minor, has prepared you for this moment,” Martinez said. “I’m not supposed to be here. Society tells me I’m supposed to be part of a statistic, but life is short, and life is beautiful. You can’t control what happened, but you can control your attitude and what happens from this point on.”

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