Son – Soldier – Survivor – Awesome Dancer!

At 19 years of age when most young men are mainly concerned about girls, the car they drive and what career path they will embark on, J.R. Martinez was lying in a hospital bed fighting for his life with severe burns to more than 40 percent of his body and suffering from smoke inhalation.

JR the motivational speaker

Jose Rene Martinez was born June 14, 1983 in Shreveport, LA to Maria Zavala. He has two sisters, Consuelo and Anabel, who were raised in El Salvador with his mother’s family.  At nine years old J.R. moved with his mother and Consuelo (Anabel died as a toddler before he ever meet her) to Hope, AR, where he lived until he was 17.  At 17, he moved to Dalton, GA, a place he proudly calls his hometown.During his senior year he played strong safety for the Dalton High School Catamounts when they went to Georgia’s State Championship. Playing professional football was his dream until he suffered an injury his senior year.

After high school he joined the army. J.R. was proud to serve as a way to give something back to a country that had already given so much to him and his family. In September of 2002, J.R. underwent Basic and Advanced Training at Fort Benning, Georgia, where he gained skills as an 11-B Infantryman. After reporting to Fort Campbell, Kentucky, in January of 2003 he was assigned to the 2nd Battalion, 502nd Infantry Regiment of the 101st Airborne Division.

In March of 2003 J.R. was deployed to Iraq, and on April 5th less than a month into his deployment he was serving as a driver of a Humvee in Karbala, when his left front tire hit a land-mine. Three other soldiers that were with J.R. were ejected from the burning vehicle, but he was trapped inside.  This date and time, April 5 at 2:30p.m., when his life forever changed, is tattooed on his left wrist.

Through courage, determination and optimism well beyond his years J.R. was able to turn an experience that could have easily destroyed his life, into one that has instead given him joy, happiness and positivity that he never imagined.  “I discovered it is what is inside a person that matters most and I wouldn’t change anything…absolutely anything!” states J.R. “I do believe everything happens for a reason, and I’m extremely grateful for that day because it led me into this life!”

However getting to this point was not immediate nor was his recovery easy.  After he was pulled out of the burning Humvee, J.R. was evacuated to a local medic station in Iraq and then onto Landstuhl, Germany, for immediate care. He was eventually sent to Brooke Army Medical Center (BAMC) in San Antonio, Texas. He spent 34 months in extremely painful recovery at BAMC undergoing 33 different surgeries including skin grafts and cosmetic surgery.

J.R. with his mother in front of church

There were days he would lay in bed crying.  His disfigured face horrified him.  He knew that the world judges by what it first sees, and he did not want to go on living.  But he reached a powerful and beautiful turning point and rebirth when his mother, Maria Zavala, told him that the people who were going to be in his life were going to be there because of who he was and not because of what he looked like.During his time in recovery a nurse asked him to speak to a burn patient who had just seen his body for the first time and had become withdrawn. After an approximate 45-minute visit with J.R., the patient opened the curtain letting light into his room and his heart. J.R. then understood the impact he had on this patient and decided to use his experience to help others, visiting with several of the patients in the hospital, sharing his story and listening to theirs.

Since then, along with his extensive charity work, J.R. has become a highly sought-after motivational speaker, travelling the country to spread his message of resilience and optimism. He devotes himself to showing others the true value in making the most of every situation. He is called on by a wide-range of groups, including large corporations, veterans groups, non-profits and schools. He has shared the stage with the likes of global self-help guru Tony Robbins and Evangelist Dave Roever. J.R. has been featured in the Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, The New York Times and PEOPLE Magazine. He has appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show, 60 Minutes, The View, CNN, FOX News, Good Morning America, Univision, and other major national news outlets.

J.R. winning Dancing With the Stars with partner Karina Smirnoff

J.R. has become a well-known actor playing ‘Brot Monroe’ on the Emmy Award winning daytime drama “All My Children.” In true Hollywood fashion, J.R. was encouraged by a friend to go on the open casting call that AMC put out for a veteran to join the cast.  After several meetings with producers he was cast and an actor was born. Due to his popularity, what started as a three month story developed into a three year stint.  His role as an injured Iraq combat veteran mirrors his own life.  As if all these accomplishments weren’t enough, after weeks of grueling practice and competition J.R. and dance partner Karina Smirnoff won season 13 of ABC’s “Dancing with the Stars”.  This win was to the delight of millions of TV viewers.  He has also been chosen as the 2012 Tournament of Roses Grand Marshal.  His duties will include riding in the 123rd Rose Parade in front of a worldwide television audience, and tossing the coin to start the 98th Rose Bowl Game on Jan. 2, 2012.J.R. believes that everything happens for a reason and he is grateful for the events of his life that have provided him with the opportunity to share his message of hope and possibility.  J.R. is not only a courageous and inspiring role model for all Americans, but he is also a special source of pride for the Latino community, and a testament of what the strength, guidance and love of a mother can do.

written by

Emily is publisher and editor-in-chief of Mariposa Magazine. She's passionate about the hugely important role that Latinas play in the well-being and advancement of their families. She writes about Latina success stories and observations on life.
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