J.R. Martinez and His Backward Fairy Tale

UPDATED: May 11, 2024
PUBLISHED: February 6, 2012

Fireworks spit and sparkle in the background. Glittering confetti rains down. J.R. Martinez is hoisted upon shoulders as he pushes a weighty, bejeweled trophy above his head. The audience erupts in a frenzy of joy.

That was the scene millions of Americans watched—and expected—last November, as 27-year-old Martinez won the Mirrorball Trophy and the Dancing with the Stars title of Champion. It was a perfect ending to a sort of reverse fairly tale—a story in which a handsome young football star becomes a disfigured veteran, yet finds fame, fortune and happiness.

When Jose Rene (J.R.) Martinez found himself in Iraq at age 19, he was dazed and, well, 19. “Everything happened so fast,” he tells SUCCESS. “I was young and didn’t process the fact that I was going to war. I didn’t really know what my purpose there was.”

Less than a year earlier he had been a senior in high school and a talented, Georgia-state championship football player with hopes of going pro. But he was injured before graduation and his dreams were put on hold. He joined the Army with the hope that it would later pay for a college education—a college where he could try his hand at football again and keep his NFL ambitions alive. In September 2002, he underwent Basic and Advanced Training and then spent the holidays back home in Dalton, Georgia, partying with friends and family. In March of 2003, he was deployed to Iraq.

On April 5, the Humvee he was driving hit a land mine in Karbala. Martinez was trapped inside, pinned behind the wheel. As flames swept over his skin (“I saw my hands being burned, it was so painful. I was screaming and yelling at the top of my lungs,” he recalls), Martinez saw something: a vision of his sister Anabel.

The Element of Magic

Martinez’s El Salvadoran mother immigrated to the United States in TK to make money to support the two daughters she left behind. Here, she became pregnant with Martinez, and the plan was always to bring his sisters to Georgia and reunite the family. But the older girl, Anabel, died of a congenital illness at age 7, before Martinez ever got the chance to meet her. Now, in a burning combat vehicle in an Iraqi desert, she appeared to him as a 5-year-old version of herself that he had seen in a photo. “I really thought I was going to die,” Martinez tells SUCCESS. “But she was calm and peaceful and said things were going to be OK.” Seconds later, Martinez was pulled from the truck by rescue workers.

He was immediately put into a medically induced coma and woke up a month later in the Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, Texas. There, he spent three more grueling months enduring skin grafts and routine—and painful—“scrubbings” to remove dead tissue. Though he was grieving for himself, the hospital staff asked him to speak to a newly admitted burn patient who was really struggling with his condition. Martinez entered the young man’s darkened hospital room (burn victims don’t like to see themselves, explains Martinez) and talked for 45 minutes about hope… about all the things they both still had to live for. As Martinez left his bedside, the patient opened up his window curtain.

Martinez was released with burns covering 40 percent of his body, a face that looked like a child’s wet-clay sculpture (when he saw himself in the mirror for the first time after the horrific explosion, he thought he looked like Freddie Krueger from Nightmare on Elm Street), and nothing to do but collect disability checks.

Instead, he went back to the hospital to volunteer and talk to more burn patients, to help them pull back the curtain a bit on their despair. He spoke about hope and moving forward and, in the process, helped heal himself. Martinez made it is his new life to inspire people to overcome the hardships in their lives. He started a new career as a motivational speaker and soon became one of the most sought-after figures on the circuit.

When a friend told him that the (now canceled) daytime soap opera All My Children was looking to cast an actual Iraq veteran for a guest role, Martinez ignored the Hollywood stereotype of superficiality and went to the open casting call—and got the gig. The character he developed outlived its initial three-month appearance, though. He was a cast member for three years.

Soon after, Dancing with the Stars called. The rest is history.

The Moral of the Story

There are plenty of lessons we can learn from a man such as J.R. Martinez: Persevere. Never give up hope. Don’t sweat the small stuff. Make lemonade out of lemons. Beauty is on the inside. Be positive. When a door closes, look for a window. Dance. And all of them are valid, beautiful and relevant. But they are also all messages we can buy framed from an office supply catalog.

Martinez’s most meaningful lesson is perhaps one about choice.

Listening to and trusting the vision of his sister was a choice. Getting over his anger at what happened to him was a choice. Making it through his surgeries and treatments with gratitude toward his doctors and nurses was a choice. Putting himself out there for rejection is a choice. Giving back to the community is a choice.

During recovery, he says, the best choice for him was to simply go through the motions of therapy and daily hospital life. “It’s human to look behind everything for meaning and to ask why. Why did I lose so much at only 19? Why was I the only one in the Humvee to be burned? But instead of thinking too much and dissecting everything, I had to choose to just be in the moment and get through it. At that point, that’s what being positive meant for me. I was angry and I had to grieve, but I didn’t dwell. And not dwelling was a very conscious effort.”

There’s a common belief that positivity is a character trait you either have or you don’t. Or that it’s something that simply happens to you after a big, life-changing event. From his shortened bio, it might be easy to believe that optimism is Martinez’s hard-won reward for enduring hardship. After all, his life follows a classic story arc: innocence, tragedy, then a redemptive road that leads to happy ever after. Martinez is now a star—an actor/dancer/writer/speaker who made People magazine’s 2011 Sexiest Men Alive list. He has a gorgeous girlfriend, Diana Jones. If that’s not “happy every after,” what is?

If his life were a movie—and it probably will be someday—the screen would go black on a shot of him and his DWTS partner, Karina Smirnoff, flying across the floor.

But lives keep going after the cameras stop rolling. “Every morning when I wake up, I choose to be positive. It’s not always easy. I’m human and I have a lot of bad days. I still face difficulties. It’s a choice every single day,” he says. He even admits that there is “pressure for me to always be ‘inspirational,’ but some days I don’t want to be that inspirational guy. I want to stay home and feel sorry for myself.”

Ever After

Everyone, Martinez says, has obstacles—whether it’s debt, divorce, unemployment or illness—to overcome and choices to make. “You can’t always control the things that happen to you. But you can control how you react to it… how you let it affect you. Even if you lose everything else, nothing can take that power away from you. Every single day, every single minute, you have choices. Do you let the traffic make you mad? Do you let some rude person get to you? If someone tells you your idea is terrible, do you get discouraged?” Only you can discourage yourself, says Martinez. “When I look in the mirror, I see a confident, handsome man. We all have the power to control how people react to us. We have to own what we have and what we’ve been given, good or bad.”

Whether or not you believe in visions of the deceased; whether you think that the “power of positivity” is the jargon of local-news-show anchors; whether or not you give a flying flip about celebrity reality shows, the power of that choice is undeniable.

Martinez’s life is a visceral, physical reminder of that power. His very body, from his scars and crumpled ears to the way he spins, floats, glides—all those words that express effortless dance—across the stage, sings a song about the beauty of choice, the beauty of choosing hope.

The purpose of his time in Iraq, a mystery to him at age 19, turned out to be something that he could never have imagined.