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J.R. Martinez Shares 'Story of Survival'

J.R. Martinez came to Jacksonville Saturday to tell his life's story, one he calls a "story of survival." He's modest. It's more than one of surviving: It's one of thriving.

A regular role on "All My Children." A championship on season 13 of "Dancing With the Stars." The cover of People magazine. A book. A career traveling the country getting paid to talk to people.

Best of all, a baby daughter waiting for him at home.

Ten years and one month ago, that kind of life, he thought, looked impossible. Even a normal, mundane life seemed more than he could hope for.

That's when Martinez' Humvee hit a roadside bomb, in the early days of the war in Iraq. He survived, but was left with burns over 40 percent of his body, including his face. He was 19 years old. And he knew what he looked like when he looked in the mirror: Freddy Krueger, villain from the "Nightmare on Elm Street" movies.

He was angry.

He wished he hadn't joined the Army. He wished his sergeants hadn't pulled him from the burning vehicle. He wished they'd just let him die.

"I was the victim. Everyone in the world had no idea what I was going through and everyone in the world was my enemy."

He was grieving.

"I was grieving the loss of the person I knew for 19 years," he said. "I counted on my looks. I counted on being called handsome when I was younger. I couldn't count on that now."

But he found reserves of strength, he said, talking to a few media members before his keynote address Saturday morning at Brooks Rehabilitation Hospital's "Celebrate Independence Day."

Martinez, 29, has created a multi-hyphenated life for himself: Actor-author-dancer-motivational speaker.

That last part might of seemed the most far-fetched to the teenage version of himself, the one that feel asleep during the speakers his high school brought in to motivate him and his classmates.

"Why would I want to be the guy who puts everybody to sleep?" he said, chuckling.

But during his recovery -- more than 30 operations over three years -- he was asked to speak to groups and the media. He found he liked it, found he could affect attitudes and expectations.

At first, he didn't want to go out in public, didn't want to face the stares or the quickly averted eyes. The more that happened, though, the more he felt comfortable in his own damaged skin.

"There was a lot of growth that happened in the midst of grief," he said.

Talking to other wounded soldiers was especially gratifying. He could help them, yes, but it made him feel better too: "It's almost as if you become addicted to helping people."

He's kept pushing himself into new challenges. An example: He'd never acted, but when he heard the daytime soap "All My Children" was casting a real war veteran to play a vet, he decided to audition. He prepared by watching the show for a month, and jokes how he'd head to the TV, telling his mother: "Leave me alone, my stories are coming on."

He got the part, and a planned three-month role turned into three years. He was touched that people embraced him, though he wasn't what he calls "Hollywood handsome." "Kudos to the people watching the TV show," he said. "We see a few scars, but we like him."

And "Dancing With the Stars?" Another challenge.

He liked to dance, but the rigor of the routines -- why did this toe have to be this way and that finger that way? -- did give him some second thoughts. He sometimes felt clumsy compared to his partner, professional dancer Karina Smirnoff: He could see why she might get frustrated as he struggled with the intricacies of the quick-step, hour after hour.

Martinez said he's been told he has a disability, but he has a motivational speaker's take on that word: "Dis the dis and find the ability."

That motto, he said, is something that could applied to just about everybody. Sure, some problems may seem minor compared to those he and other wounded vets have encountered. That doesn't mean they don't matter, that they're "stupid" concerns.

"It's not stupid for you," he said. "Actually it's very important to you."

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