As a soldier in Iraq five years ago, J.R. Martinez’s world blew apart when the vehicle he was driving hit a land mine. The corporal, who is now retired, spent more than two years in the hospital, undergoing dozens of operations to put his body—and life— back together. Now he’s up and running, literally, and wowing crowds around the country as a motivational speaker. He dares to dream big and to find ways to make those dreams come true. Recently Martinez was honored with the Shining Star of Perseverance award, given annually by the WillReturn Council to honor a few good men and women who demonstrate perseverance through disabling illnesses or injury.
ABILITY Magazine: Was it a situation where you actually applied for the award, J.R., or did they come to you?
Martinez: They came to me. That’s what makes it special. If I had applied and got it, that would have been great, too, but they just called one day and said, “This is who we are, we’ve been trying to find you, you’re getting this award,” which makes it even more special. I do a lot of media, and people find me whether it’s through a newspaper, TV or radio. It’s pretty cool to attract such positive attention.
AM: That was your high point; tell me about the lowest point—your accident?
Martinez: I was deployed by the Army to Iraq in March 2003. A month later, I was escorting a convoy to the city of Karbala, when my front left tire hit a land mine. I got trapped inside the truck. When I was pulled out, I had been burned over 40 percent of my body, including my head, face, arms, hands and a portion of my legs and back. I was evacuated to a local medic station in Iraq, and then to Landstuhl, Germany, and finally on to Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, TX. It was there that I had 32 surgeries in two-and-a-half years. But if you stick with something, you might be surprised how far you can get.
AM: How long have you been in the service?
Martinez: I’m actually retired. I joined in September ‘02 and got out in March’06.
AM: And prior to that?
Martinez: Prior to that! Whoa, I remember a few birthdays, but not that many! I joined the military right after high school. I’m 24 now. (laughs)
AM: Other than public speaking, what are your plans for the next few years?
Martinez: I plan to do motivational speaking on a wider level, which I believe will increase my opportunities.
Also, I want to write books and ultimately host my own TV show. It would be about something positive, because we tend to get so caught up in the negative that we forget all the good. I think every one of us needs to hear that positive story, and get that positive feedback to motivate us. So filling that role is one of my major goals. There are a lot of different things that I would like to take on, not for the fame or fortune, but to prove to people that anyone can do them.
AM: It seems that public speaking comes naturally to you. Did you take any classes?
Martinez: No, but I always enjoyed talking to people and being around them. I also had a lot of experience with being the class clown and making myself the center of attention. So when the opportunity to try public speaking presented itself, I went for it. People told me I had a gift, and I said to myself, “You know what? I do.” It’s a blessing. I’m lucky. What can I say?
AM: You’ve done the three most fearful things: Speaking in public, scaling great heights and being a soldier in Iraq.
Martinez: You’re right. I was afraid of heights, which I got over in the army, because I had to spend time up in the air, doing jump training. At 18 or 19, I had to step away from my parents and comfort zone and into the uncertainty of military life. I overcame that fear once I got to Iraq. But a fear that some might not realize that I faced was seeing my face and body for the first time after my injury. That was scary. To be able to say, “How am I going to go into public and be accepted again? How am I going to be looked at, to be received?” But I overcame that, too.
The first time I spoke before an audience of thousands of people, I thought: Man, am I gonna wreck this? Then I had to overcome going on TV. There are so many barriers I’ve faced day in and day out. But I have faith, and I’m constantly pushing myself through obstacles.
AM: Other than the burns, are you dealing with any other physical problems?
Martinez: No, but the burns are limiting in themselves. They have definitely affected my range of motion. Yet through rehab and surgeries, I’ve been able to gain all my function back, which has been key. People often ask me, “JR, how are you doing?” I say, “You know, if it wasn’t for the scars on my body, you would think that there’s nothing wrong with me, because that’s how good I feel.” I’m running again, working out again. I stay in the sunlight. There are a lot of ways in which I was limited early on. In fact, I was told there was no way I’d be able to do this or that, but here I am, doing those things and more.
AM: So other than people’s perceptions of your burns, you don’t have a disability?
AM: The Americans with Disabilities Act protects individuals from discrimination in employment, even if there’s only a perception of a disability.
Martinez: You know, I had no clue that the ADA was supposed to protect me from discrimination. I know that people with disabilities may be perceived negatively, and yet they may still be perfectly functional. But I didn’t know that there was a law to help. That’s pretty cool. It’s the ADA, right?
AM: Yes, the Americans with Disabilities Act; it was signed in 1990. The ADA contains many sections dealing with accessibility and communications, transportation and employment. Under employment, it spells out how you can’t discriminate, and then it defines what a disability is. It’s the lack of one or more life activities, but it includes people who are perceived to have a disability. So under that clause, a person actually has a defensible case if they can prove that that was the reason they didn’t get the job.
Martinez: If they did prove it, is the employer forced to correct the situation?
AM: It depends on the facts of the case, your attorney and the court’s ruling. What it does is give you a real tool to work with, which is something that didn’t exist prior to the ADA.
Martinez: I think what you said about the ADA should give people hope. I interact with a lot of people who are disabled, and now I can say, “There’s something out there for you. Look into it.”
AM: What are you doing to market yourself?
Martinez: I actually work with a nonprofit organization
that helps wounded troops who’ve returned from Iraq and Afghanistan. I’m the national spokesman. That puts me in the public eye quite a bit; I tend to travel nonstop. Through these appearances, I help get a lot of people involved. I’ve been doing other things here and there, which I would file under the category of networking. That’s what it’s all about. Every day I get up and I network. That’s what helps me.
AM: Are you still in touch with the people you’ve met who’ve also acquired disabilities in Iraq and Afghanistan?
Martinez: Yes. A lot of the people who were wounded over there turned out to be my best friends. It’s amazing to be able to see how they’ve taken what’s happened to them and moved on without looking back.
AM: Are you ever going to go back to Iraq?
Martinez: I want to go back as a motivational speaker. I’m trying to convince someone to back me, like USO. Would it be that bad to have someone who’s been there/done that come out on the other side and go back to encourage the guys? So far I’ve been unsuccessful in getting someone to buy in, but I’m hoping someone will budge. I want to go back. One of my good friends was talking to Armed Forces Entertainment (AFE), because I do a lot of stuff with country music’s Big & Rich. I’ve also done a lot of stuff with LeAnn Rimes and other musicians in that arena. We’re trying to put together a tour of the musicians we know, and take it over there.”
AM: That’s a great idea.
Martinez: AFE is aware of what we’re trying to do, and it’s something that they definitely want to look into and possibly move forward with. This summer, we planned a welcome-home event at a Raleigh, NC, Air Force base for about 400 troops. We went for someone who had been wounded in Iraq to be the MC. That way, between acts, the vets could hear great stories from troops who were once there. It kind of motivates them to be able to say, “Wow, that’s one of our guys!”
I want to do a documentary. It would be cool if I could go over and film our trip, and then go on to Landstuhl, Germany, and visit the troops there, retracing my steps. That would be emotional for me, to go back and do that.
Great American Country (GAC) Television in Nashville just interviewed me. We pitched the idea for them to cover the trip. So we’ll see what comes of it. If they give us the go, man, I definitely want some people to go with me so I can get the ultimate out of it.
I believe if I were able to get that TV station, GAC, to say, “We’ll cover it,” then we could go to the USO and say, “You know, this will be fully televised on national television, and USO’s name will be everywhere. But don’t send us with your people, we want to travel with our own.”
Steve Cochran sings country music, and he was a marine who was wounded in Iraq. I just ran into him in Nashville recently, and we had a great talk. So I’m thinking to myself, that’s another way to go. He was paralyzed for nine months and was told that he was never going to walk again, and then boom! He’s not only walking, but singing and has—from my understanding—a song pretty high on the charts. So obviously there’s a lot of different ways of marketing this so people raise their eyebrows and say, “Hmm, not a bad idea.”