Dalton High School graduate J.R. Martinez said he never dreamed he’d return to the school one day as a published author.
But on Monday, Martinez came back to the school to talk to students and members of the community about the importance of literacy and to sign copies of his new autobiography “Full of Heart: My Story of Survival, Strength and Spirit.”
“I wrote this book because I thought it was my opportunity to give someone some strength, to inspire someone,” he said.
Martinez, a 2002 graduate of Dalton High School, was a U.S. army soldier serving in Iraq in 2003 when the Humvee he was driving struck a hidden explosive device. Martinez was trapped in the burning vehicle for five minutes before his comrades were able to free him. The explosion and fire left him with burns over a third of his body. Almost a quarter of his body suffered third-degree burns. He also had a lacerated liver, broken ribs and damage to his respiratory system from inhaled smoke.
Martinez spent three years in the hospital and has had 34 surgeries.
He gave much of the credit for his survival to his mother Maria Zavala, who still lives in Dalton, who raised him as a single mother.
“I told her that I didn’t realize until I started writing this book that we were poor when I was growing up,” he said. “But looking back it was her example and all the little things I went through that helped mold me and gave me strength and helped prepare me when that big explosion came.”
Martinez became a motivational speaker, then in 2008 he landed a role on the soap opera “All My Children.”
“That was supposed to be for three months, but it lasted three years and led to me getting on ‘Dancing With the Stars,’” he noted.
In 2011, he and partner Karina Smirnoff won season 13 of “Dancing with the Stars.”
Martinez told students they should always try to find something positive and useful in their lives every day.
“Listen to your teachers and find something that you can use each day that you go to school,” he said.
The talk was part of Dalton High School Literacy Night, which spotlighted student work and featured several exhibits on reading and literacy.
Dozens of students flocked around Martinez after his speech to get photographs made with him or to get signed copies of his book.
Hailey Brock, a teacher at Dalton High, brought her son Hayden, 11, who described Martinez’s speech as “awesome.”
“I thought what he had to say was very important,” he said.
Hailey Brock said students at the school were very excited to have Martinez come back.
“I guess they can relate to him because he was so young when he was injured and because he was a student here like they are,” she said.
Beverly Hedges, a reading teacher at Blue Ridge School, brought Jag, a Portuguese water dog, to have her photo taken with Martinez. Jag serves as a “reading buddy” at Blue Ridge, where students who may be having trouble reading get to read to her. Hedges says Jag helps make them more comfortable. She also takes Jag to the Dalton-Whitfield County Library to visit with other little readers.
“Jag has a Facebook page, so we wanted to get her photo taken with J.R. because he is an author and because this is Literacy Night,” she said. “We’ll post her photo with J.R., and the kids can see that if they want to, being an author is something they can pursue.”