J.R. Martinez never gets tired of telling his story.
Now, his inspirational story is being brought to a nationwide audience through the power of television.
Martinez, a 2002 Dalton High School graduate, is appearing on ABC’s long-running soap opera “All My Children” as a wounded Iraq veteran who returns home — a role that parallels his life.
“One thing I’ve learned is if I don’t tell my story I potentially miss out on the opportunity to inspire, motivate or help someone,” the 25-year-old Martinez said. “If my gift is a mouth and scars on my body, then I’m going to use it in a powerful way to make an impact.”
His life would change during an Army deployment to Iraq in February 2003. Two months later, the left front tire of a Humvee Martinez was driving hit a landmine. The explosion caused severe burns to more than 40 percent of his body and disfigured his face. Martinez endured 34 months in the hospital and 32 different surgeries, including skin grafts and cosmetic surgery. He now serves as a national spokesman for the Coalition to Salute America’s Heroes, which promotes programs to help wounded military members.
The plight of Martinez’ on-screen character is similar.
The character, Brot Monroe, served in the Army and was injured in combat during a deployment to Iraq. While in the Army, he met and fell in love with Lt. Taylor Thompson (actress Beth Ehlers). Monroe lets Taylor believe he’s died because he doesn’t want to burden her with his injuries. Months pass. After several surgeries, Monroe returns to find his fiancee grieving her loss, unaware he is still alive.
Martinez draws on his experiences to give the character depth. He, too, had a difficult time re-entering everyday life, especially the dating world. He knew that women enjoyed his personality and his company, but Martinez felt he was lacking “that initial something that attracts you to someone.” He’s learned to use what he still has: his smile and his eyes.
“There were a lot of lonely nights,” Martinez said. “There were a lot of shot downs. Really early on, I thought to myself, ‘I don’t want to deal with this. I would have been better off not even making it vs. going through this pain of people looking at me awkwardly, a girl walking by me.’”
The “All My Children” writers have leaned on Martinez to help them with the script. They often ask him how certain situations affect his emotions and how he responds to questions. So far, he’s appeared in several episodes. Producers have told him the role will last at least three months, but he is hopeful it will be longer.
Martinez heard about the “All My Children” opportunity through a friend who sent him an e-mail saying a show was searching for an Iraq War veteran. Martinez, who was in Los Angeles at the time, called the number. After a 10-minute conversation, he paused and asked, “Sorry. Who are you again?”
It was Judy Wilson, the casting director for “All My Children.”
Martinez would be in New York City, where the show is taped, for a conference and had an extra day, so he dropped by the studio and met with several members of the “All My Children” crew. That meeting went well.
Martinez returned to Dalton in August and blocked off his schedule for three weeks. He worked out daily at the Bradley Wellness Center to get in better shape just in case he won the part. He also watched “All My Children” to understand the show’s characters and the person he would be interacting with as a love interest.
“In three weeks, I got hooked into it,” Martinez said. “It was so funny. At 12:55, I would tell my mother, ‘Mom, I’m going upstairs. My stories are coming on.’”
In September, he traveled to New York for a screen test. Two weeks later he received a phone call that he had won the role. Four years in the public eye as a motivational speaker helped him prepare for the acting profession. He had been in front of cameras and large audiences many times. Martinez believes his demeanor was another aid in landing the part.
“I’m a natural disaster already alone,” Martinez said. “I’m just a big, goofy guy and I love to have fun. I’m an emotional guy as well.”
His aspirations to appear on a soap opera date to May 2003 while he was confined to a hospital bed recovering from his war injuries. His mother, Maria Zavala, stayed by his bedside and watched hours upon hours of English and Spanish language soap operas. Martinez was unable to change the channel. But he slowly began enjoying the melodramatic shows, so much he joked with his mother that one day he would be on a soap opera. In the back of his mind, Martinez was serious.
With days spent in the hospital bed, Martinez developed a storyline in his head. A man dating a gorgeous girl is the victim of a terrible accident. When she arrives at the hospital, it’s the real life J.R. Martinez sitting in the bed.
While the physical wounds were difficult to heal, the mental wounds were much tougher to overcome. Hospital staff — doctors, nurses, orderlies — all told Martinez that “everything would be just fine.” Despite those expected, yet comforting words, the real test would be if people outside of the hospital accepted him.
That reassurance came when Martinez returned to Dalton in June 2003. His flight through Chicago to Chattanooga was delayed. On the ride south on I-75, he thought most people would have gone home because he wouldn’t arrive home until 10:30 p.m. At the stop light on the ramp to the Walnut Avenue exit, his friends helped him out of the car and whisked him to another car. Hundreds of people lined Walnut Avenue, waving signs and shouting words of encouragement.
“It wasn’t cool, let alone, that people were still up at 10:30 at night,” Martinez said. “It was cool to me the fact that when I looked over to my left, the Applebee’s — Applebee’s right there by Kmart — instead of having their special of the day, they were saying, ‘Welcome home J.R. Martinez. You are a hero.’ I thought, ‘Man, I made it big now. I’m big time now. I’m right there on Applebee’s.’ Then I pulled into Kmart and there were more than 3,000 people there to welcome me home.”
That warm reception convinced Martinez that no matter where he went, if people didn’t accept him for his scars, he had a home in Dalton.
“Dalton, Ga., is the reason I am what I am today,” Martinez said. “Dalton inspired me to basically be comfortable within myself and to go out and do what I’m doing today.”
As for the future, Martinez hopes to parlay his soap opera appearances into more roles. He dreams of having a syndicated talk show and writing books. But for now, Martinez is using his daytime drama gig to inspire people across the country.
“We’re educating and building awareness for veterans that are actually day to day experiencing these obstacles and slowly just trying to get their lives back into one piece,” Martinez said. “It’s not easy to do. The fact that we’re able to do it in a way that’s not in your face, in a way it’s a nice love story, but at the same time it’s reminding people that, ‘Hey, that J.R. guy isn’t in makeup. That’s real.’ And what’s going on in the world is real as well.”
J.R. Martinez never gets tired of telling his story.
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