J.R. Martinez: Dancing with Faith
A badly burned soldier rises above his appearance--in front of 20 million Dancing with the Stars viewers.
The moment was here. Ten weeks of rumbas, chachas and tangos. I stood on the dance floor, hand in hand with my partner, Karina Smirnoff, and waited to hear Tom Bergeron, host of Dancing With the Stars, announce who’d won the coveted Mirrorball trophy.
I stole a glance out in the studio audience for my mom. She smiled broadly, proudly. This could be the greatest day of my life, I thought.
You may know a little about my story. How I was raised by a hardworking single mom, how we moved from place to place during my childhood and wound up in Dalton, Georgia; how I played strong safety for my high school football team and went to the state championship; how I was popular and my head might have swelled a bit from girls telling me I was good-looking.
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I dreamed of becoming an All-American hero. I just didn’t know how I was going to get there. I had no real job skills, and hadn’t done well enough in school to earn a college scholarship. Maybe that was why, not long after I graduated high school, a commercial I saw about the Army intrigued me.
That summer of 2002 I went to the Army recruiter at the mall. “I want to enlist,” I said.
“Why?” he asked.
“To serve my country.” My mom came to the U.S. from El Salvador and she taught me to be grateful for our life in America. After basic training I was assigned to the 502d Infantry Regiment. In March 2003, at age 19, I was deployed to Iraq.
My job wasn’t glamorous. On April 5, less than a month into my deployment, I was doing the usual—driving a Humvee near Karbala, a small city about 60 miles southwest of Baghdad. We were at the head of a convoy escort. Our mission: Secure a local airfield.
There were four of us—three enlisted men and a sergeant. It was just weeks after the invasion. I was driving with one hand on the wheel, like I was cruising the boulevard back home.
My buddy riding shotgun joked, “Wouldn’t it be great to get a purple heart? Every restaurant you went to, you could jump to the head of the line.” Bravado covered up our fear. We knew how dumb we sounded, but humor helped take our minds off the dangers of being in a war zone.
I felt our left front tire hit something. A land mine. Boom! The other three guys were thrown clear by the explosion. The Humvee burst into flames. I was trapped inside, burning alive. “Help! Help!” I screamed. I could hear the rat-tat-tat of machine-gun fire outside. My guys were pinned down, under attack. No one could reach me. God, help me. The pain was indescribable. I watched the skin melt and fall off my hands. Flames seared my face, my arms, my back, consuming me. I’m going to die.
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Someone’s hands reached for me, pulling me out of the Humvee. My buddies. They had suppressed the fire. I remember being lowered to the ground, the sergeant cradling me like a baby. “My face, my face,” I shrieked. He held my hands and wouldn’t let me touch my face. Then by the grace of God, I passed out.
I awoke at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, Texas, three weeks later. Doctors had put me in an induced coma and I’d been airlifted from Iraq to Germany then to the U.S. There was Mom at my bedside, looking at me with such love in her eyes. But it didn’t mask her worry.
Those first weeks were a blur of pain and medical procedures. Forty percent of my body was burned. My left ear was so badly damaged it had to be removed. Doctors amputated part of my right ear too. I was tethered to a ventilator because of smoke inhalation. I had skin grafts and surgeries, some taking over 10 hours.