J.R. Martinez was 19 and a new Army recruit when he arrived in Iraq for his first tour of duty in 2003. Within a month after his arrival, he was severely injured when the Humvee he was driving hit a landmine.
The impact ejected three other soldiers in the Humvee but Martinez was trapped inside as fire swept over him. Suffering from smoke inhalation and badly burned over 34 percent of his body, Martinez was evacuated to Landstuhl, Germany, then onto Brooke Army Medical Center in Texas. He stayed at the medical center for nearly three years, undergoing 33 surgeries that included skin grafts and cosmetic surgeries.
He will tell his story -- and how remarkably, it is one of hope and optimism -- at Tidewell Hospice's annual Compassion in Caring luncheon on Feb. 14.
It's been nearly 11 years since that day in Iraq and the life envisioned as a 19-year-old new Army soldier is far different now.
The first step came at the Brooke medical center when a nurse asked him to speak to a burn patient who had become withdrawn. The 45-minute conversation made such a difference that Martinez decided he could help others in the same way. He started encouraging other patients and listening to their stories.
Now a motivational speaker, Martinez has given thousands of inspirational talks, and been a spokesman and supporter of veterans' causes.
And he has found a wider audience through television and pop culture. After he began making public appearances as a spokesman for a non-profit veterans organization and giving local interviews, he attracted the attention of the entertainment industry.
When "All My Children" put out a casting call for veterans, Martinez got the part of wounded Army veteran Brot Monroe, a role he played for three years. In 2011, he won the crystal trophy in "Dancing With the Stars."
Currently, he's starring as part of an elite rescue squad in the television series "SAF3."
But one of the first things he wants to talk about is military veterans and the issues they face. A large problem is backlogs in the Veterans Administration that hinder veterans from getting the medical care and benefits they need, said Martinez.
"The biggest issue is that, for the most part, the military patches our guys up for them to move on with life," he said.
"But they may be in a negative space from what they experienced in combat, multiple deployments, mental or physical problems. And the resources just aren't there -- the VA is undermanned."
As time wears on, veterans can become depressed, angry and revert to the feeling there is no hope, he said.
But there are ways that everyday Americans can help, said Martinez.
Examples, he said, are helping a veteran put together a resume or giving a dollar to Operation Finally Home, which provides mortgage-free housing to wounded or disabled veterans. Voters can put pressure on politicians to take better care of veterans. And large and small businesses could open up job opportunities.
Meanwhile, hope and optimism are vital in any situation.
"There's a lot of negative things in this world and a lot of adversities of all kinds," said Martinez.
"But it's really important to almost have a false sense of hope. For me, it's very important individually for staying strong and positive," he said.
"Because positivity can get you through the day."
Susan Hemmingway, Herald health correspondent, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
IF YOU GO
What: Tidewell Hospice's annual Compassion In Caring luncheon featuring "Dancing with the Stars" champion, Iraq War veteran J.R. Martinez. Proceeds will benefit Tidewells's Honors program for veterans.
When: 11:30 a.m. Feb. 14
Where: Ritz-Carlton, 1111 Ritz Carlton Drive, Sarasota.
Information: 941-552-7551 or email email@example.com