2011 was a banner year for actor J.R. Martinez. Not only did he and his dance partner, Karina Smirnoff, win ABC Television’s Dancing with the Stars, he appeared on the cover of People magazine, was featured in its sexiest man alive issue and named one of its 25 most intriguing people of the year. This recognition is a Hollywood star’s fantasy come true — but it’s almost unbelievable when you consider the star is also a retired United States soldier and pain survivor. In fact, a few years ago, J.R. Martinez was focused on only one thing: staying alive.

Jose Rene Martinez was born June 14, 1983, in Shreveport, Louisiana, raised in Hope, Arkansas, and played strong safety for Dalton High School in Georgia. After high school he proudly joined the Army. In April 2003, less than a month into his deployment in Iraq, Martinez was driving a Humvee carrying three other soldiers when the left front tire hit a landmine. The other soldiers were ejected from the burning vehicle, but Martinez was trapped, suffering smoke inhalation and severe burns to more than 40 percent of his body.

While he struggled in the Humvee, he says his sister Anabel, who died as a child, appeared to him, giving him the strength to stay alive. After over 30 surgeries and unimaginable pain, Martinez has done more than survive: he has become an iconic American hero.

Amazingly, Martinez says that while his experience was certainly life-altering, it actually was a change for the better. “I discovered it is what is inside a person that matters most and I wouldn’t change anything —absolutely anything,” he says. “I do believe everything happens for a reason, and I’m extremely grateful for that day because it led me into this life!”

After recovering from his injuries he was ready for a new challenge, and life led him into an adventure that sounds like the plot of a Hollywood movie. One of Martinez’s friends encouraged him to attend the open casting call for ABC television’s daytime drama All My Children (AMC). AMC was searching for a veteran to join the cast in the role of “Brot Monroe,” an injured Iraq combat veteran. After several meetings with producers, Martinez — who had no acting experience — landed the role, and an actor was born. His popularity turned what was originally a three-month story arc into a three-year role. In September 2011, AMC ended its 41-year run on ABC.

Now a highly sought-after motivational speaker, Martinez shares his experiences and a message of resilience and optimism with military veterans, students, patients and professionals around the world. He says he is devoted to reminding others about the value of making the most of every situation.

PainPathways caught up with Martinez on the road home to California after a series of speaking engagements. He has a message of hope for those who live with pain, and news of an exciting adventure of his own: he will soon become a father, welcoming his daughter as this issue goes to press. After learning how Martinez has created opportunities out of obstacles, it’s easy to see why he was selected as the 2012 Tour-nament of Roses Grand Marshal for best representing the parade’s theme, “Just Imagine.”

PP: While serving in Iraq, you and three other soldiers were injured when the Humvee you were driving hit a land mine. What was going through your mind as you were trapped inside?

MARTINEZ: I was conscious the whole time I was trapped in the truck. I literally thought my life was going to end and that everything I had thought of doing would no longer be possible.

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PP: You spent 34 months in recovery at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, Texas, and had 33 surgeries, including skin grafts and cosmetic surgery. How did you get through the pain, mentally and emotionally? What inspired you?

MARTINEZ: The recovery was very painful. Early on they would have to scrub my body to get the old dead skin off in order for the grafts to heal properly. Imagine the feeling I felt. It was hard, and in moments when I felt like crying, I did. I knew that even those moments when I felt sad were part of the recovery; however, I would remind myself of the goals I set for myself. I set small goals to just get through every day. I figured that over time I would be able to see the big picture.

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PP: Will you explain the moment when you decided to use your experience to help others?

MARTINEZ: Early on, I spent time visiting all the patients on the burn ward. It didn’t become national news until early in 2004. I do remember one man I talked to while I was in the hospital. A nurse asked if I would meet with him. We talked for about 45minutes and before I left, he opened the curtain and let some light in his room for the first time in a while.

 

PP: Before you reached a place of being able to help others — when you were alone or right before falling asleep — what did you fear?

MARTINEZ: How people would accept me and what my life would become.

PP: Some exciting opportunities have come your way since your accident. You’ve been on ABC’s All My Children and Dancing with the Stars and served as the Grand Marshal of the 2012 Tournament of Roses Parade. What’s been the biggest risk? The most challenging?

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MARTINEZ: I’ve taken many risks, but I believe one of the biggest was making the step towards Hollywood.

PP: Congratulations on winning Dancing with the Stars. What was that experience like? Had you danced before? Did pain ever get in your way?

MARTINEZ: It was fun. Never danced before. The biggest challenge was mentally staying calm. Yes, I felt pain at times from my groin, but it didn’t slow me down.

PP: What have you learned about yourself through all the ups and downs?

MARTINEZ: That I can accomplish anything when I put my mind to it.

PP: How is your life different now than before your accident?

MARTINEZ: I know who I am and what I’m about.

PP: Do you still have pain or flashbacks? If so, how do you cope?

MARTINEZ: No pain. No flashbacks. I cope by helping others. It gives me the chance to help them while getting my feelings out.

PP: What do you most look forward to now?  Is there something new you’d like to try?

MARTINEZ: I’d like to become a respected film actor and become a successful author. The biggest challenge I have ahead of me is becoming a father in the spring. However, I’m looking forward to raising a little girl.

PP: Congratulations! Anything you’d like to add that would inform or inspire our readers?

MARTINEZ: Strong faith through the worst times is an asset that’s very beneficial. Believe in a greater power. I would like to thank everyone who has supported me throughout every adventure I’ve had. {PP}