J.R. Martinez: Fighting the Battle of a Lifetime

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Nicole Smith Dahmen, PhD

If you are like me, you are probably counting down the days until World Burn Congress. But I remember how frightening it was to attend my first “World Burn.” When I originally heard about the Congress, I thought, “Maybe I’ll go to that some day.” But at the time, I wasn’t ready. About 2 years later, I decided to make the phone call to register... It still took me about three or four tries to get up the guts to dial the whole number.

Today, World Burn Congress has become an integral part of my life. In many ways, it is like returning home every year to see my family. These people know me like no others and understand me like no others.

At this year’s World Burn in Raleigh, North Carolina, as is the tradition, a red heart will mark the nametag of each of the many first-time attendees. One of these people will be J.R. Martinez.

This is J.R.’s story. This portrait of CPL J.R. Martinez,  entitled “Back From Iraq” (oil, 50" x 60") by artist Doug Auld of Hoboken, NJ, has been submitted to the Smithsonian’s 2009 Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition.

Following the tragic events of September 11, 2001, many Americans felt the call to volunteer, either in their local communities or on national level. For J.R. Martinez, the decision to serve his country ended up being one that would not only change his life forever, but also the lives of countless others.

In the fall of 2001, J.R. was a high school senior living in Dalton, Georgia, with his mother, Maria Zavala, a single-parent originally from El Salvador. J.R. was a self-described happy and active teenager. He loved to play sports, especially football. He was popular and always called a “pretty boy.” Self- confidence was no problem for J.R. and as he says he “never had a problem getting a girlfriend.”

After his high school graduation in May 2002, despite his mother’s concern, J.R. decided to enlist in the U.S. Army. He had spoken with an Army recruiter and liked what he heard. J.R. told his mother, “I’m 18, and I need to figure out what I am going to do with my life. The Army will give me a chance to be independent, travel, and serve my country.”

Following basic training, in January 2003 J.R. was assigned to the 101st Airborne Division at Fort Campbell, Kentucky. His job was infantry—a front line, combat position. J.R. said, “It was my choice to pick infantry. I’m a hands-on, competitive person, and it didn’t matter to me how dangerous it would be.”

In February 2003, shortly prior to the official start date of the current Iraq war, J.R.’s unit was deployed to Iraq. At 19, J.R. was the youngest in his unit. He said, “The other guys used to tell me, ‘Don’t joke around, learn, pay attention.’ I thought I was indestructible.”

In Iraq, J.R.’s unit was assigned to escort convoys to certain destinations, providing military protection. He said, “It was a thrill. I enjoyed it. And I knew my life would be put at jeopardy before anyone else.”

On April 5, J.R. was given orders to escort a convoy to Baghdad. J.R. was driving the rear vehicle. They arrived in Karbala safely but were rerouted due to increased enemy threat on the main road. Because J.R.’s vehicle had the most artillery, it was moved to the front of the convoy with J.R. in the driver’s seat.

About 50 meters down the new route, the left front tire of J.R.’s vehicle ran over a land mine, a highly powerful bomb in the ground. The vehicle immediately caught on fire. The three other passengers were thrown from the vehicle, but J.R. was trapped inside.

J.R. was pulled to safety, but not before he sustained third-degree burns to more than 30 percent of his body, including his head, face, arms, hands, legs, and back. He also had a smoke inhalation injury and broken ribs.

J.R. was conscious the entire time. “I saw my hands being burned. It was so painful, and I was gasping for air inside the vehicle,” he recalled.

The last thing J.R. remembers is being loaded into a medical helicopter. He was put into a medically induced coma. A month later J.R. woke up in the Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, Texas.

J.R. said, “That’s when my new battle started. This battle will last a lifetime.”

As other burn survivors know, the physical road to recovery from a burn injury is incredibly painful. In addition to painful graft surgeries (the donor skin site can often be more painful than the burn site), burn patients must be routinely “scrubbed” to remove dead tissue. J.R. said, “The scrub was awful. I was crying and screaming and kept asking the nurse, ‘Why are you doing this to me? What did I do to deserve this?’”

From the pain, J.R. said that he knew his injuries were bad, but he hadn’t seen his face and didn’t know the full extent of the injuries.

When J.R. asked the nurses for a mirror, they would steer the conversation another way. Finally, J.R. told his nurse Mike, “I’m 19 years old. I’m going to have to look at this for the rest of my life, so I might as well learn to start living with it right now.”

Mike agreed to bring J.R. a mirror. “That was the scariest, most horrific thing I had ever seen. I was shocked,” J.R. said.

Until that time, J.R. said, much of his self- confidence had come from his looks. However, the image he saw looking back at him in the mirror that day “wasn’t the guy that I had known for 19 years.”

J.R. began to spiral into depression and became upset at everyone and everything. “I constantly asked, ‘Why me?’” he said.

J.R.’s mother was by his bedside throughout the 3 months he spent in the hospital. Eventually she was able to get through to him. He recalled her saying, “J.R., whoever knows you is going to love you for who you are as a person and not what you look like.’”

J.R. remembers thinking about how he could use this experience to create a new image of himself. “Eventually I became happy this happened to me,” he said.

Following his discharge from the hospital, J.R. remained in San Antonio on medical leave from the Army and was told to “sit back and relax.” At the time he thought he “had it made.”

“I was still getting paid and had no responsibility,” he explained. “However,” he added, “that got old very quick.”

J.R. was only 19 and realized that he needed to figure out what he was going to do with the rest of his life. J.R. didn’t know anyone in San Antonio, so, naturally, he started spending time at the only place he was familiar with—Brooke Army Medical Center.

“I would go to the burn ward and hang out with the nurses and doctors,” he said. “They were the only people I knew!”

He eventually became a “runner,” helping out around the ward. He said, “It was fun. It kept me active and gave me something to do.” One day a nurse asked J.R. if he would talk to one of her patients.

This particular patient had also been burned and was very depressed. J.R. remembers walking into the room, which was very dark and somber. J.R. said, “The man told me, ‘I’m burned and never going to be the same.’”

J.R. asked if he could turn on the light. “When he saw me, he was shocked,” said J.R. But J.R. remained calm and the two began to talk.

“I’m living my life. And I’m enjoying it,” J.R. recalled telling him. “If I’m doing it, you can too.” From that, the patient seemed to get some hope.

“I ran to call my mom,” J.R. said. “I told her, ‘I think I know why this happened to me. I think I was kept in this world to help others just like myself.’”

J.R. began to do “rounds” in the hospital, visiting with and talking to patients. The hospital staff saw the special gift that J.R. had for working with patients and appointed him a “goodwill officer” for the troops at Brooke Army Medical Center.

“I wanted to do this to give people hope and to inspire them to believe,” said J.R. “Life goes on. There is a reason [something tragic] happened. Next week sunshine will come around.”

The hospital’s public relations office heard about J.R. and the success that he was having with other injured soldiers. Before long, the local media were interviewing J.R.

Today, less than 5 years later, J.R. is making a national impact. He is a national spokesman for the Coalition to Salute America’s Heroes (CSAH), traveling across the United States speaking to injured soldiers. According to the CSAH Web site, J.R. “inspires the lives of others through his amazing story of resilience, perseverance and optimism.”

And now more than just the local media have come calling. J.R. has appeared on 60 Minutes, Oprah, and Good Morning America, just to name a few. He has also been featured on a two-page spread in People.

J.R. doesn’t let the media attention go to his head. “I see it as a way to reach millions of people,” he said humbly. “At the end of the day, the media help spread my message.”

In addition to his tremendous professional success, J.R.’s personal life is also thriving, although he acknowledges that it was difficult at first.

“For a long time I thought girls would only approach me out of sympathy,” he said. “I didn’t allow myself to get close to someone because I was worried I would get hurt.”

Today, J.R. said, he has a “beautiful girlfriend who finds me attractive.” In addition to finding love, J.R. explained, “my life is better on so many levels.” 

J.R.’s schedule is quite hectic, but he happily said, “I’m dedicated to what I do. I’m trying to impact people’s lives. I can’t take a day off.”

One of J.R.’s main messages to others is, “Never stop setting goals. They give you something to work toward.” And he takes his own message to heart. At 25, it may seem like J.R. has already reached the stars, but he continues to strive for more.

J.R. considers himself “military,” but, he added, “I want to do more.” He hopes to begin working with more than just injured military personnel and to become an international motivational speaker. He also plans to write a book and eventually have his own television program.

Although J.R. has been a burn survivor for more than 5 years, he has just recently become involved with the Phoenix Society. He will be attending the World Burn Congress for the first time in Raleigh, N.C. in October.

For those of you who may be nervous about attending World Burn, take a lesson from J.R. and make the call. Like you, J.R. will be one of the many first-time attendees with a red heart on his nametag. Be sure to look for him. I guarantee you he will have a big smile on his face and bring one to yours as well. 


J.R. Martinez can be reached at jrneverquits.blogspot.com.

Nicole Smith Dahmen, PhD, is an assistant professor at the Manship School of Mass Communication at Louisiana State University. She is also a burn survivor.


This story is an excerpt from The Phoenix Society’s® Burn Support News, Fall Edition 2008. Burn Support News is a quarterly publication that contains articles on the emotional, psychological, and social aspects of burn recovery. All Rights Reserved
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