GALLOWAY TOWNSHIP — Before J.R. Martinez was an actor on “All My Children” and the 2011 winner of “Dancing with the Stars,” he was a scared 19-year-old Army infantryman in a hospital bed with burns over 40 percent of his body and a bad attitude about life.
“I’m now that thing that used to scare me in the movies,” he told a crowd at Richard Stockton College Thursday night he remembered thinking to himself after his Humvee hit a land mine in Iraq. “I thought what’s the point of living if I’m going to scare kids in the grocery store.”
But one day, he said, after mouthing off to his mother, she turned on him with all her Hispanic fury and said: “You have a lot of things to learn. But the most important is that no matter who is in your life, they will be there for who you are, not what you look like.”
“I made a choice that day,” Martinez told the crowd of about 300. “My new plan was to just get through every day and be as positive as I can. I can cry, and I can be angry, but I would get through it.”
Today, nine years after the explosion and fire that ate into his hands and face, Martinez can joke about only needing to get one ear pierced, and how it only took 33 surgeries for him to make People magazine’s list of Sexiest Men.
But the more than two years he spent in and out of hospitals getting those surgeries also gave him a new mission in life.
“One day a nurse asked me to visit another patient,” he said. “I talked with him for about 40 minutes, and giving him hope made me feel better, too. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was helping myself by helping him.”
When he realized he was able to help others, he began working with nonprofit groups as a motivational speaker. That work led him to the roles that have made him a celebrity and he now says he doesn’t regret the pain he’s been through because it has given him a new life that he loves.
“We all have scars,” he said. “Mine are just visible. If you just keep your head down you will run into obstacles. Look up at what’s around you or you will miss opportunities.”
Martinez was invited to Stockton as a joint project with the school’s First Year Experience and Veterans Services. Assistant Dean of Students Tom O’Donnell said he met Martinez at a veterans conference and was impressed with his warmth and rapport with veterans. Martinez was originally scheduled to speak on Veterans Day, but was still competing on Dancing with the Stars so was rescheduled to February.
The anticipated one-hour program lasted almost two hours as Martinez told his story, interacted with the friendly crowd, and answered all questions. He had met with some students in the military before the event, and he asked the crowd to recognize them and thank them when they see them on campus and to support their families when they are deployed.
“I know there’s a mom here whose son is getting ready to go to Afghanistan,” he said. “So if you see these people, say hello, say thank you.”
He said he takes no position about serving in the military because he knows both the benefits and the dangers. He does not regret his own decision, but said each person must decide if the military will help them reach their goals.
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