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J.R. Martinez wrote this exclusive blog for GlobalGrind almost a year ago. J.R. is an Iraq war veteran, motivational speaker and actor on the recently ended All My Children. In April 2003, at 19 years old, he was serving as a Humvee driver for the U.S. Army in Iraq when his left front tire hit a landmine. He suffered smoke inhalation and severe burns to more than 40 percent of his body. 

J.R. is currently a contestant on Dancing With The Stars, partnered with Karina Smirnoff where he is a fan favorite. We wanted to highlight this blog as J.R. takes on another exciting challenge in his life. Of his experience on the show, he told ABC, “Karina made the choreography really hard but I’m going to take this challenge head on.” Check out his story below!

Growing up, the words “military” or “veterans” were distant to me, blips of news clips on the evening news about the Gulf War. I had uncles who served in the military, but since my family is from El Salvador and they have always lived there, I didn’t hear much about it. I felt like the only time I heard about wars, veterans, or even military was in history class, and that became a faded memory as I spent the majority of my class time catching dreams with my eyes closed. I didn’t know anything about the sacrifice the men and women in the military made, let alone their families, to serve our country.

Most of my high school years were devoted to chasing the finest girls, being one of the popular guys, and shooting to be the best damn football player I could be. It wasn’t until I graduated from high school that the military became a constant in my vocabulary. You ask, “Why now?” Well, throughout high school, I didn’t focus on academics, and my dream of becoming a pro football player wasn’t going to happen if I was slacking in class. Needless to say, I didn’t learn this until it was too late and playing football at the collegiate level wasn’t an option. After graduation, I took a tour of a Division 2 college, and they told me I would be able to attend school; however, I would not be able to play sports for two years because of my low grades. This wasn’t going to work for me, as I had plans to become a pro NFL player, and if I couldn’t play at the collegiate level then why do it at all? That’s when I turned to the military for direction and a way to get something I felt I couldn’t get anywhere else. I wanted to travel the world, gain experiences that would form me into a man, go to college and have it paid for, and be able to give back to this country that was under attack in 2001. After joining in September 2002 and spending a few short months doing basic training, I found myself flying to the Middle East. Everything happened so fast that I never got the time to reflect on the fact I was going to war as a 19-year-old. My early days in Iraq were filled with sleepless nights and long hours. They say everything happens for a reason, so I guess me sleeping in class in high school was preparing me for the lack of sleep I would get in Iraq. Who knew it?!

And then, on the 5th of April 2003, my life changed FOR THE BETTER.

I was driving a humvee with three other soldiers in the vehicle when my front left tire ran over a landmine. The three other soldiers with me were thrown out of the vehicle, but I was trapped inside the burning humvee for about 5 minutes, completely conscious, feeling my body being burned, and seeing it change drastically. I fought to stay alive, just long enough to give the medics enough time to save my life. I truly thought my life was ending at that moment. After that, I was evacuated and ended up in San Antonio where THE REAL WAR WAS ABOUT TO BEGIN. You see, I sustained 40% burns throughout my body and other physical injuries. Although the other three soldiers didn’t sustain major physical injuries, I have now come to learn – 7 years later – that it mentally affected them. Scars go beyond what the physical eye can catch and deep into the veins as it runs simultaneously with your blood. It filters through the body and even into the brain, as it affects how our men and women integrate back into a quote-unquote “normal life”. When it came time to retire from the military, I wasn’t upset, as I believe my physical scars are my new uniform and my words are my new weapon. I’m making impact in this world in a way I never thought possible. I’m sharing my message so not only kids but also adults don’t become as disconnected as I once was. Do you know a service member? Make the time to know their story, whether it includes physical injuries or not. Separate your political views from the fact that they were following orders and willing to put their life on the line for people like you and me. Truth is I have learned a lot from the people I least expected, and our troops fall into that category. A lot of wounded troops have become my best friends, and to see how they live their life is truly inspiring. For example, I was honored to meet Sgt. Joel Tavera.

Why would you want to ignore a young man whose humvee was hit by five rockets? The blasts killed three men. Sgt. Tavera was thought to be dead as well, but miraculously, he survived. Tragically, Sgt. Tavera lost sight in both of his eyes, his right leg, four fingers on his left hand, and suffered very serious head trauma and critical burns to 60% of his body. Witnessing Sgt. Tavera’s smile despite the circumstances inspires me to this day, and it can inspire you as well.

Get involved on this day and throughout the year, even if it’s saying “Thank You” (two simple words that mean more to a service member than you know), buying a meal, or supporting the non-profit of your choice. Veteran’s Day is not only November 11 but 365 days a year.

God Bless our veterans, their efforts, their families, and God Bless our nation for having such brave individuals.

J.R. Martinez

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