J.R. Martinez knows about adapting and overcoming obstacles in life.
The U.S. Army veteran, who overcame a life-altering injury while serving in Iraq to become an actor and a motivational speaker, shared his story with about 500 people Wednesday at the Blair County Convention Center as part of the Penn State Altoona Speaker Series.
"That's what we have to do in life, find a way to make it work," he said while talking about overcoming a move to Hope, Ark., with his mom, Maria Zavala, when he was 9 and getting teased.
View a video of motivational speaker J.R. Martinez's speech at the Blair County Convention Center
Martinez got into football, but his dreams of playing college ball were dashed when he found out he was not eligible to play for two years because he was missing some classes lost in the transition between high schools in Arkansas and Georgia, where he moved when he was 17.
He decided to take a different route and join the Army.
Martinez figured he'd do three years, get his education and play ball. He enrolled in basic training in September 2002. He was assigned to 2nd Battalion, 502nd Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division. At age 19, he was deployed to Iraq in March 2003.
Mirror photo by Patrick Waksmunski
U.s. Army veteran, actor and motivational speaker J.R. Martinez addresses a crowd Wednesday night at the Blair County Convention Center as part of the Penn?State Altoona Speaker Series.
He enjoyed aiding convoys, putting himself between the enemy and the other soldiers he was helping to get safely to their destination, he said. He began to think of the military as a career. His football dreams started to fade.
On April 5, 2003, while escorting a convoy, they were given a new mission so they made a new plan.
"We're trained to adapt and overcome," he said. "That's what we're trained to do."
Martinez said he was laid back, driving a Humvee, laughing with the others in the vehicle when it hit a land mine.
"Think about how life can literally change that quick," he said to a hushed room.
While trapped in the burning vehicle he thought his life was over, he said. This was not part of the plan. He could feel the pain of his burning flesh and knew he "wouldn't be able to wash this off," he said. He was gasping for air. He had a cracked rib and lacerated liver.
He screamed for help but no one came. It was seven minutes before his sergeant pulled him out.
He saw "everything laid out" in that time, including the Army handing his mom a flag. He saw his dreams and goals shattered.
Martinez suffered smoke inhalation and burns on his face and body.
After waking up from a coma, Martinez struggled to come to terms with this new direction in life. He was angry and cried when he saw his face for the first time, he said.
Martinez said the mirror was his best friend earlier in life, and he was told he was handsome.
"I was in a negative place for almost two weeks," he said, placing blame and talking very little.
Finally, his mom got through to him. He would adapt and overcome.
After more than two months in the hospital, he was released, and then came back for continued care. He was asked to talk to another burn patient. He didn't want to do it. After finally going into the patient's dark room and talking to him, he realized he could help others.
He went to a new goal: helping others every day, he said. He began public speaking, and in 2008 he joined the cast of "All My Children." He then joined and won "Dancing with the Stars." He went from learning to walk again to learning to dance, he said.
Martinez asked the audience if his story didn't apply to them then, to "treat it as loose change," keeping it in their pocket for a time when they would need it.
Sometimes in life plans, goals and dreams are started for us by someone else, but everyone has the power to choose how it pans out, he said.
Eliot Trimble, 13; Will Evey, 15; and Mitch Malone, 12, attended the event. They found his story motivational.
It was "great inspiration," Trimble said.
Evey said it was motivational how he overcame obstacles and kept going.
It had "good motivation and inspiration for lots of people," Malone said.
Mirror Staff Writer Amanda Gabeletto is at 949-7030.