On March 13, I had the opportunity to attend Easter Seals Crossroads' 51st Annual Business Lunch, featuring J.R. Martinez. The event was held to recognize Disability Awareness Month and the 19 percent of children and adults with disabilities in Indiana. Also recognized were employers like Crossroads, Central Nine Career Center, and Longhorn Steakhouse that identify and value the skills those with disabilities bring to the workforce- and who are dedicated to improving employment opportunities for them.
As part of the pre-event networking reception, I had an opportunity to meet J.R. Martinez. I patiently waited in line to receive his autograph and have a photo taken with him. When I got to the front of the line, the first topic that came to my mind was his dancing. J.R. smiled real big and explained "I had the time of my life on that show". I asked if he still danced today, and he replied that he did, and that he will always enjoy dancing. We posed for a quick photo and he thanked me. I walked away thinking "what a nice, charming, humble gentleman."
Within a half hour, we were ushered into the ballroom for the luncheon. The presentations that followed were touching, as the 2012 Ability Awards Recipients were honored. Later in the program, Martinez took the stage. From the beginning, the audience was captivated.
He told his life story. How he was born in Shreveport, Louisiana, and how his father walked out of the picture earlier on. To this day, he has never met him. He also described how he had dreams to someday become a professional football player. At the age of nine, Martinez and his mother moved to Hope, Arkansas. He described the uncertainty, and how he was forced out of a school he was comfortable with, with friends he knew well.
"The best lessons in life are those experiences," Martinez told the crowd. "Life is about adapting and overcoming."
He and his mother lived in Hope for the next eight years. For Martinez, playing football was one constant- his mother, who had always supplied unwavering support- remained the other.
When his mother took a new job, they packed up and moved once again- this time, to Dalton, Georgia. The timing was extremely tough on Martinez, as he was now entering his senior year of high school, at the age of 17.
Once again, he had to find a way to adapt and overcome. Martinez jumped in at his new school, quickly making friends. He played strong safety for the Dalton High School Catamounts. Unfortunately, he suffered an injury that derailed his dream to play professional football.
"I thought, if I can't go to college and play football, I don't know what I will do," said Martinez.
He was watching television one night and saw an advertisement for the U.S. Army. He approached his mother and told her his intentions.
"My long-term goals were still in reach, but I had to take a detour in the short-term," explained Martinez.
In September of 2002, he enlisted in the U.S. Army and underwent training at Fort Benning, Georgia. When friends and family asked why he chose "the most dangerous job in the military," Martinez told them, "If I'm going to do this, I'm going to do this all the way." Upon completion of his training, he was assigned to Delta Company, 2nd Battalion, 502nd Infantry Regiment of the 101st Airborne Division. In February of 2003, he was deployed to the Middle East.
Martinez explains that up until this point, he felt "invincible".
On April 5, 2003, he was tasked with escorting a large convoy to Kabul. On the way back, he received another request, to secure an airfield north of the city. Martinez jumped into the driver's seat. He recalls a joke that he and his sergeant- who was sitting in the front right seat- were discussing at the time.
"Humor is an unbelievable tool to overcome anything," he said. "I recall the window was half-way down, and my left hand was on the steering wheel. I turned to look at the sergeant and we were laughing. By the time I turned back to look at the road, the driver's side tire of the Humvee hit an IED."
Martinez said the three other passengers were thrown from the vehicle. He, on the other hand, was trapped inside, and the vehicle immediately became engulfed in flames. Martinez didn't mention what happened to his fellow comrades. What he did describe is the horror he endured.
"I was stuck in the vehicle for about seven minutes. At one point I remember seeing my hands on fire and thinking they were never going to look normal again."
Martinez also envisioned his mother, who had had been with him through everything, draping a flag over his casket at his funeral service. Miraculously, this would never happen, as someone came to rescue Martinez, pulling him from the burning vehicle.
He was evacuated to Ramstein Air Base in Germany, for immediate care, and was later transferred to Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio Texas. He was placed into a medically-induced coma. On April 24, 19 days after the injury, he came out of the coma.
"It took a long time for me to process everything. The doctor had explained my feeding and shower schedule, and that a nurse would be in to provide continuing care."
Martinez recalled the excruciating pain felt during showering, as a burn survivor. He also recalls asking the nurse for a mirror, to see his face and his body for the first time.
"The nurse put his hand on my shoulder and told me that it would not be the same. I heard, but I didn't listen."
Martinez looked into the mirror for two seconds, and then picked up his right arm and pushed the mirror away. He immediately exclaimed, "Look at me! Why?"
No one had an answer. But his mother was there. She provided the love and support that spurred his recovery. During his time in recovery, a nurse asked Martinez to speak to a burn patient, who had just seen his body for the first time and had become withdrawn. After about 45 minutes, the patient opened the curtain and let light into his room.
Martinez understood the impact he had on this patient, and decided to use this experience to help others.
After 33 cosmetic and skin-graft surgeries, and 34 months spent at Brooke Army Medical Center, Martinez was released from the hospital and started to return to doing everyday things. Still, he continued to push himself outside of his comfort zone.
In 2003, he attended an open casting call to be on All My Children. He had never taken acting classes. Regardless, he came out on top, and was cast as Brot Monroe on the ABC daytime drama. He then turned what was to be a three-month role into a three-year role on the show. This is what opened the doors for him to compete on Dancing with the Stars.
"All of us are different, but normal in our own skin," says Martinez. It's a message he conveys to a wide range of audiences, as he currently travels the country as a motivational speaker.
Martinez says he made it a goal to live his life with an optimistic outlook. He learned that he had the power and ability to make a difference. He also learned there are people that care enough to "accept you for what's on the inside."
Another message that is interwoven throughout his speaking is that of constant change. Martinez admits that we all make plans in life, and sometimes those plans change; our beginnings are shifted.
"Still, no matter how dark of a hole we may find ourselves in, we never lose the opportunity to make a choice."