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Thursday, March 1, 2012 04:12 pm

Man on fire

Burn survivor brings message of hope to Springfield

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J.R. Martinez, who previously starred on All My Children and Dancing with the Stars, visited Lincoln Land Community College on Feb. 20.
PHOTO BY PATRICK YEAGLE

J.R. Martinez says he used to worry that his appearance would frighten children. Now he proudly embraces the rippled burn scars that cover much of his face, hands and other body parts.

In 2003, the former Army infantryman, now 28, was badly burned by a landmine in Iraq. Martinez survived the injury and overcame the resulting depression to become a nationally-recognized actor, dancer and motivational speaker. Martinez visited Lincoln Land Community College in Springfield on Feb. 20 to share his humorous message of hope and perseverance.

In addition to public speaking, Martinez took on the role of an Iraq War veteran on the soap opera “All My Children” in 2008 and won the televised “Dancing with the Stars” competition in 2011 with dance partner Karina Smirnoff, a Ukrainian professional ballroom dancer.

“My road has been unpredictable,” Martinez told about 150 audience members at Lincoln Land. “But I’ve always gone at it 100 percent and thought there’s a reason that door is open right now. When a door is open, you need to walk through with commitment and dedication.”

Jose Rene Martinez grew up without a father in Louisiana, Arkansas and Georgia, then joined the Army after high school. He had hoped to become a professional football player, but he ended up a soldier in Iraq instead. When the Humvee he was driving hit a landmine and exploded on April 5, 2003, Martinez was trapped in the flaming vehicle for between seven and 10 minutes, sustaining severe burns over 40 percent of his body.

“I was completely conscious the whole time,” Martinez recalled. “I could see my hands changing (from the flames) right before my eyes, and I thought to myself, ‘My life is over.’”

He lost consciousness after being pulled from the burning wreckage and awoke in the burn ward of a military hospital back in the United States. Nineteen days after the incident, Martinez asked his nurse to hold up a mirror so he could see himself.

“I started to cry when I saw my face,” he said. “I kept asking, ‘Why me?’”

Martinez said he became angry and sullen, even snapping at his mother, who came to visit him in the hospital.

“When a Hispanic woman uses your whole name, you know you’re in trouble,” Martinez said with a sly smile, referring to his Salvadoran mother. “She said, ‘There’s a lot of things you’re going to have to learn about life.’… I made the choice to get through every day and be positive while I waited for the big picture to come to me.”

Shortly afterward, another nurse in Martinez’s military hospital asked him to speak with a burn victim who had become reclusive and sat in total darkness in his room. By the end of their talk, Martinez said, the other burn victim had finally turned on a lamp to light up the room.

“I realized I was able to shed light on a dark time for him,” Martinez said. “I started to think that maybe it was my purpose to use my experiences to help others with their experiences.”

After delivering his speech at Lincoln Land, Martinez met with several fans for more than an hour, posing for photos, signing his autograph and listening to their individual stories. Martinez said he has met with fans for as long as six hours when time allows.

“I think if we all spend a few extra seconds on someone else and show that extra level of care, you never know how far that will go or how that will make a difference in someone’s life,” he said. “For me, it’s important. I have a message, something I can share with people. If it takes me a couple of extra seconds to share that with them, I’m going to do that.”

Contact Patrick Yeagle at pyeagle@illinoistimes.com.

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