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Soldier Uses His Scars To Assist Others
October 28, 2004

WASHINGTON - Go ahead. J.R. Martinez doesn't mind if you ask him about the scars on his face, head, neck, arms and hands. He knows how he looks to others. The 21-year-old U.S. Army corporal was so horrified the first time he looked at himself in a mirror that he stopped eating, refused to speak to anyone and seriously considered killing himself.

He has had 27 surgeries - the longest lasted 11 hours - in the 18 months since a land mine planted in Kabala, Iraq, turned him into a human fireball and trapped him inside the Humvee he was driving. His buddies finally pulled him out, and his sergeant cradled his head in his hands like he was a baby, rocking him back and forth, telling him that he was going to be all right.

All Martinez could do was scream: "My face! My face! My face!" Each time he would try to touch his face, his sergeant would swat his arm away. When they loaded him onto a Black Hawk helicopter, Martinez passed out. He woke up three weeks later.

Now he uses his scars to help other soldiers. "To catch people's attention," he said. "I am so confident that if you will sit down and talk to me, that you will not notice the scars anymore. You will see that I am still a human being, that I have a sense of humor and like to go and have a good time."

Martinez is a spokesman for the Coalition to Salute America's Heroes, a McLean, Va.-based organization founded last spring by Roger Chapin, a West Coast businessman who has created several nonprofit veterans support groups dating to the Vietnam War.

Martinez has been recruiting wounded soldiers at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, Texas, as well as Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C. The coalition was formed to help soldiers severely wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan with job training and placement as well as modifying homes or building new ones for soldiers who use wheelchairs.

The coalition is planning its inaugural "Road to Recovery Conference and Tribute" at Walt Disney World in Orlando, Fla., in early December. Chapin said the coalition will cover all expenses for veterans and their families who attend the conference.

As of last week, Chapin said, 618 soldiers and their families had registered. There is room for about 1,200 guests.

Chapin has pledged money to help fund the conference. He also is holding a fund-raising lunch in November in Washington, D.C., with retired Gen. Tommy Franks as the featured speaker. Chapin founded Help Hospitalized Veterans in 1971. He raised more than $12 million to distribute 880,000 gift packs to soldiers during the Persian Gulf War.

The December conference would be the largest gathering of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans and wounded soldiers. In addition to entertainment, the soldiers will hear from motivational speakers and be offered seminars on education, job training and employment opportunities.

"I think there will be a lot of mutual reinforcement going on," Chapin said. "The soldiers will be able to make new friendships, and their families will have a chance to bond."

Secretary of Veterans Affairs Anthony Principi has agreed to have his department be part of the conference.

Chapin said he formed the coalition to honor the wounded and to offer practical help, advice and support as they make a transition to new lives - some badly scarred like Martinez and others missing arms, legs or the ability to move any muscle below the neck.

"Particularly with paraplegics," Chapin said, "it is important to get a guy a meaningful job that has the potential to give him a productive and rewarding future. It is too easy for a lot of these guys to take a disability check and say, 'To hell with it.'"

Martinez met Chapin when the businessman took about 30 wounded soldiers at Brooke Army Medical Center to lunch. Martinez was so moved by Chapin's desire to help him and his fellow soldiers that he volunteered to help spread the word.

Martinez's mother, Maria, came to the United States from El Salvador in the early 1980s to escape the war there. He has an older sister who still lives in El Salvador.

Martinez was born in Shreveport, La., and grew up there and in Hope, Ark., before moving to Dalton, Ga., his senior year in high school to play football, aiming at a college football scholarship. His dream was to play in the NFL.

His football plans were derailed because he had not taken enough college-prep classes to get into a Division I college. A few weeks after graduating from high school, he ran into an Army recruiter and decided to join.

In September 2002, he went to basic training at Fort Benning, Ga., and was assigned to the 2nd Battalion, 502nd Infantry Regiment of the 101st Airborne Division at Fort Campbell, Ky. In March 2003, he shipped out to Iraq.

On April 5, 2003, Martinez was at the wheel of a Humvee, part of a convoy escort. He remembers turning toward the three others in the vehicle as they joked about how "cool" it would be to get a Purple Heart.

"I just turned my head back to the road, and boom," Martinez said.

The Humvee burst into flames. He couldn't move. He remembers red and orange flames all around him and his eyes closing tightly involuntarily. He'd open them, be blinded by the light and they'd close again.

He had a vision of his mother, standing beside a grave, being handed a folded U.S. flag. Then there was another vision. His sister, Anabelita, who had died at age 9 from an illness she had had since birth, came to him. "She told me I couldn't go because my mom needed me. When I heard that, I just started screaming."

The next thing he remembers was being on the ground, his sergeant holding him, the skin on his face, arms and hands practically melted away. Then there was darkness when he passed out and was transported first to Kuwait, then to Germany and finally to Brooke Army Medical Center.

When he awoke after three weeks, his mother was there. Parts of his ears were removed because they were so badly burned. His internal organs had been severely damaged when he inhaled the heat and smoke.

The lowest point was the day he looked in the mirror for the first time. He was devastated and angry, and lost his will to live. His mother rescued him from his despair. "I know what your problem is," he recalled his mother telling him. "You are worried about girls. You are 19, and you are worried about not being able to get girls."

"Mom, look at me," said, Martinez who had always taken pride in his appearance.

They talked for a long time and, gradually, Martinez began to think of himself other than the face he saw in the mirror. He has taken that image of his sister appearing to him in the burning Humvee as a sign of what he should do.

"My sister works through me, I believe," he said. "I think my sister is the one who gives me the courage to do what I do today - to go out and speak to people. I think honestly ... this is my personal mission in life."

So he travels the hospital wards, using his scars to tell his story, to comfort and encourage and to recruit for the coalition. He has another surgery scheduled between now and December, but he is looking forward to the conference in Orlando.

"It will be very emotional to gather so many troops together at one time in one place," he said. "We'll be able to talk to each other and say, 'Look, this is how I've dealt with things - you can do the same.' "

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