On April 5, 2003, J.R. Martinez, a 19-year-old infantryman with the 101st Airborne Division, jumped into the driver’s seat of a Humvee to lead an Army caravan into the city of Karbala. Suddenly, a landmine detonate beneath his feet.
Fuel-fed flames seared his clothes, burned his skin and incinerated the dreams of this high school football star from Dalton, Georgia.
While he was trapped inside the truck, he thought: “This is where my life ends. Everything I wanted to do no longer exists.”
He first felt sharp pain on his face, then, nothing. The flames had destroyed every nerve ending.
“I honestly thought it would be better if I hadn’t survived the accident.”
They placed him on a ventilator because of severe smoke damage to his lungs, and, then, began the excruciating ritual of removing dead, burned skin and surgically grafting healthy skin from unaffected areas of his body.
He sucked it up through more than 35 surgery procedures.
After all that, therapists put him through months of painful stretching exercises so he might once again lift his arms, straighten his elbows, open the fingers of his contracted hands, and turn his head from side to side.
He had to re-learn to walk. He spent 2 1/2 years in and out of the hospital. “It was tough, it was painful, but because I did those things, because they pushed me to do those things, is why I am where I am today.”
After seeing his face for the first time, he fell into a deep depression, uncertain what his life could hold.
However, one day, after speaking with his mother, “I made a choice that I was going to get through every single day. And the answer would come to me, and it did.”
He visited another burn patient and realized that was helping him, too. He began making regular visits to many patients. “That,” he says, “is when J.R. Martinez was born.”
He competed on “Dancing With the Stars,” and won.
As he raised his right arm and extended his left to clasp the hand of his partner Karina Smirnoff in an emotional salute to fallen servicemen and women, he symbolically reached out to fellow burn survivors, demonstrating with his scarred face and body that it’s possible to move beyond the dark days of doubt, despair and depression and reclaim a meaningful life.
You can help burn survivors, too. Ask me how!
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