Grace Under Fire
By Rob Lewis
Martinez Named Outstanding Disabled Veteran 2012
It almost seemed unfair.
J. R. Martinez won the 13th season of ABC’s hit series “Dancing with the Stars” with the grace and confidence of a professional dancer.
But on that night, what was past turned out to be prologue. Martinez’s harrowing experience as a severely burned victim of an ambush in Iraq paved the way to a role on a daytime TV drama followed by his dance-show victory.
“If he didn’t break after surviving that ambush and those terrible burns, he certainly wasn’t going to be broken by any other challenge life has to offer,” said National Adjutant Arthur H. Wilson. “It is that preference and his willingness to become the face of a generation of wounded veterans that we want to honor.”
The honor Wilson mentions is the 2012 Outstanding Disabled Veteran of the Year award. Martinez, whose nomination was put forward by the Department of California, will officially receive the award Aug. 4 at the DAV National Convention in Las Vegas.
“Receiving this award from such a prominent group like DAV is almost like receiving a medal for some amazing work I didn’t get a chance to continue to do in the military,” said Martinez.
Born in Shreveport, La., in 1983 and raised mostly in Dalton, Ga., Martinez enlisted in the Army infantry in 2002. He took part in the invasion of Iraq as part of 1st Platoon, Delta Co., 2/502nd Battalion, 2nd Brigade in the storied 101st Airborne Division out of Ft. Campbell, Ky.
“I enlisted in the Army for many reasons. After 9/11, I felt like it gave me an opportunity to give back to a country that had given so much to my family, who are from El Salvador,” Martinez said. “Of course, it also gave me an opportunity to earn college money, be more independent and travel the world.”
Fellow soldier Justin Hart, who now serves as National Service Office Supervisor in Hartford, Conn., remembers his impression of Martinez more than a decade after their first meeting.
“He was a great soldier with a high work ethic,” Hart said. “I remember having a brief couple of days before we received the orders to invade Iraq. Our leaders were going through different scenarios to see how we would react if someone got shot or blown up. JR said he would run in and get them no matter what because these soldiers were like a second family to him.
“Of course, the answer our supervisors were looking for was to secure the area first. It didn’t matter to him. He was going in to help no matter what.”
After the invasion, Martinez, Hart and the rest of their unit began the long, arduous process of securing Iraq, city by city. But in Karbala, Martinez’s brief military career would come to an end when the Humvee he was driving was hit by a roadside bomb during a security patrol.
Hart, who was manning the .50 caliber machine gun turret atop the vehicle, has a vivid, if fragmented, version of what happened next.
“I remember waking up on the concrete road. I had no idea of what just took place,” Hart said. “I felt this immense amount of heat coming from the right side of me and someone yelling in the background. I could not make out what it was they were yelling, so I looked in the direction. I saw this rubble of metal on fire. I was so close to the fire, it was burning the hairs on my body. I looked to my left to try to move away from the vehicle and my .50 caliber machine gun landed within three feet of me at that moment. The barrel was bent in half, which in my three years of service I have never seen anything like that happen to a barrel of a .50 caliber machine gun. I looked up and my platoon sergeant was yelling for me to come in his direction. By this time the grenades, MK-19 rounds, and .50 caliber rounds were all cooking off. I could hear the rounds coming [within] inches of my body. I got up to go in the direction of my platoon sergeant, and fell to the ground. I could not walk. He came over and picked me up and brought me to safety behind another truck.
“The entire time I heard JR yelling in the background. My platoon sergeant and a squad leader rushed to pull him from the wreckage. They tried to grab him, but his skin was sliding off of his body. Eventually, they pulled him out, and we were brought to a medevac location, where we were transported out together on a UH-60 helicopter. I remember that I was under him listening to him scream. I did my best to assure him that everything was going to be all right. I’m not sure if he heard me when I was talking with him because of the pain he was in,” Hart said.
Severely burned on more than 40 percent of his body and suffering from smoke inhalation, Martinez was flown to an Army hospital in Germany, then to Walter Reed and finally Brooke Army Medical Center (BAMC) in San Antonio. He spent nearly three years at the hospital, enduring 33 surgeries and skin grafts.
The course of treatment was grueling and painful, but Martinez made the decision early on that he would not give up.
“Any self-pity I had didn’t last. My mother talking to me snapped me out of it,” Martinez said. “Most of all, I had a belief that there had to be more to life than what I had experienced. I had to make the choice to live to see just how much more there was for me.”
Hart, who suffered a broken leg among other injuries in the blast, was eventually able to return to the fight with his fellow soldiers in Iraq. When they returned to Ft. Campbell, the soldiers had a special visitor waiting for them.
“JR was there to greet us despite the treatments he was undergoing for his injuries,” Hart said. “My heart dropped when I saw him again. He was crying and hugging everyone. It was a very emotional event.”
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