J. R. Martinez, the actor who has appeared on the soap opera “All My Children” and the syndicated action TV show “SAF3” and won season 13 of “Dancing with the Stars,” knows a lot about what it means to be courageous.
Former U.S. Army infantryman Martinez was burned over more than 30 percent of his body when his Humvee rolled over an IED in Iraq in 2003.
After coming home to the United States, he endured 34 operations. Martinez often felt like giving up because he was disfigured, but persevered to become an actor and motivational speaker.
Martinez, 33, told Fox News that he now sees how fortunate he is to have survived on April 5, 2003.
“I’m here to tell you that a day that once I frowned upon is now a day I just recently celebrated,” he said. “I went to a baseball game with my daughter and my girlfriend…I’m one of the fortunate ones. So many don’t come home. I know I’m one of the blessed. There are so many service members that wish they have this second chance at life.”
Eight months after having enlisted in the army, Martinez, then 19, was driving a Humvee in Iraq when the front left tire hit a landmine and he was trapped inside the vehicle. He suffered severe smoke inhalation and burns.
In the near-death experience, he remembers “feeling hopeless, screaming and yelling at the top of my lungs, for someone to come pull me out of the Humvee, pain coming over my body, and feeling as if I’d been in that Humvee for hours and in truth, it was [just] five minutes.
Martinez told Fox News, “I just remember feeling as if my air way was closing up, like when you’re underwater for too long and you come out and you gasp for air. I remember the heat, the feeling in my body of being physically and mentally drained.
“I thought I was well on my way [to dying]. But honestly, I would have those moments where I would start to close my eyes and I would feel weak and then I would just think to myself, no, I have to open my eyes, and I would fight to open my eyes and think, just hang on a little bit longer.”
Martinez admitted he was “losing hope in those guys who were, are, my battle buddies and how they weren’t there in the midst of me screaming and yelling. They weren’t there to come and save me.”
But he now knows, “They did. They couldn’t just rush to me. They had to strategically plan how they were going to get to me without putting at risk other service members.”
Martinez credited an amazing team for saving him in Iraq, and then the experts at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio who never let him give up during his grueling recovery.
“At first, I was very naïve, believing I was going to look the way I looked before,” he recalled. “I wanted to fix every wound, fix every scar because I needed to eliminate the disfigurement as much as possible. Then over time…it became about having a procedure that would help my quality of life.”
He went on to play the role of Iraq war veteran Brot Monroe on “All My Children,” and won the mirror ball trophy on “DWTS” in 2011 with dance partner Karina Smirnoff.
The military man then appeared on the CW show “SAF3,” which also starred Dolph Lundgren in the story of the sea, air, and fire divisions of the Malibu Fire Department
When the “Baywatch”-style show was cancelled after one season in 2014, Martinez decided to go back to school. He is now studying psychology at Fordham University.
“I thought, this is the perfect opportunity in my life to go do something I’ve always wanted to do,” he said.
He also is still doing motivational speaking for corporations, schools and veterans groups.
Martinez, whose daughter Lauryn is 5, said he is “grateful for the fact that I am here, that I was spared, and I had the opportunity to be a father and to experience that unconditional love.”