J.R. Martinez was just 19 years old and serving as an U.S. Army infantryman in Iraq when his Humvee hit an IED (improvised explosive device). He suffered smoke inhalation and severe burns to 34% of his body, including his face. He spent 34 months recovering at an Army burn center, and underwent 33 separate surgeries and skin graft procedures. His face was permanently disfigured. But as he recounts in his recently published autobiography, Full of Heart: My Story of Survival, Strength and Spirit, the war veteran took his tragedy and turned it into inspiration for others facing challenges, as well as a successful television career.
“I wanted to write the book so people could see that nothing I have came easy,” Martinez told Mamiverse. The author also wanted to inspire others to pursue their dreams, no matter what adversity they may be facing.
Martinez realized during and after his recovery that he had the power to help other people—not just burn victims but others suffering from misfortune of any kind. He soon became a highly sought after motivational speaker, and parlayed that into a budding television career. His first television appearance was in a recurring role as an Iraqi war veteran on All My Children, but he became a household name in 2011, when he won the mirror ball trophy on Dancing with the Stars. Now, when not touring the country and inspiring others at speaking engagements, he is pursuing other television opportunities.
“I believe that bad moments come into our lives because we are supposed to learn something,” he told Mamiverse. “Going through dark moments is inevitable but it’s up to you to hit the switch and bring in some light—you can make that choice, and when you hit the switch, light will come in.”
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A LIFE OF STRUGGLES
Beyond the extraordinary circumstances of his injury, recovery and subsequent experiences, Martinez’s story is very similar to many other children of Hispanic immigrants. His father, originally from Monterrey, Mexico, left his family when Martinez was just a baby. His mother, an immigrant from El Salvador, had to take low paying jobs to make the rent and put food on the table. As his book highlights, he had to face poverty and abusive stepfathers, and he was a latchkey kid who faced lonely nights when his mother worked graveyard shifts.
Martinez never let the dark moments get him down for to long. “We are all going to face unexpected challenges in our lives, and what matters is the way we cope,” the author writes in his memoir.
A MOTHER’S STRENGTH
Martinez dedicates the first half of the book to his mother’s own difficult journey, because he says it is important for people to know where the root of his strength comes from. “I wanted people to understand why I am the way I am,” he says, “because [of] the difficult journey she had to overcome…those [lessons] she passed down to me.”
He refers to his mother as “one bad-ass woman—a four-foot, eleven-inch GIANT.” He told us that her positivity became his beacon of light. “She told me that if you smile, you’re inviting good energy to come into your life. My mother was amazing at giving me not only what I needed, but what I wanted in order to make me feel like I wasn’t missing out.”
NEW YEAR’S RESOLUTION
The last few years of Martinez’s life have been busy, as he’s traveled an average of 275 days each year. But he told us his New Year’s resolution is to slow down and enjoy his family. “I want to take time to reach out to those closest to me and not allow my career to dominate every aspect of my life,” he says. Martinez also admits that having a daughter (Lauryn Annabelle Martinez was born in 2012) has made him appreciate life even more. “That’s what I’ve learned about fatherhood, to enjoy the moment.”
Full of Heart is a very raw book, as Martinez bares all, highlights his strengths as well as his weaknesses, and admits that he has a tough time trusting people. No one, Martinez most of all, could have predicted on that terrible day of his accident how his life would change, or the ways he’d find to turn his tragedy into opportunity and hope for himself and others. His story contains a lesson for all of us—to not feel sorry for ourselves, but instead see the silver lining in every cloud, and live our lives full of heart.