J.R. Martinez on Rebuilding His Life After Surviving a Roadside Bomb Blast: Recovery Was 'The Real War'

PHOTO: J.R. Martinez was just 19 years old when a bomb hit his Humvee while he was serving as an U.S. Army infantryman in Iraq.

J.R. Martinez, an actor and war veteran, has samba-ed and rumba-ed his way into the finals of ABC's hit competitive dance show, "Dancing With the Stars," and graced the cover of People -- he was even named one of the magazine's "Sexiest Men of the Year" this year.

Not bad for a guy who was relatively unknown before joining the "DWTS" cast. It was just eight years ago that Martinez, 28, was about as far from the glitz and glamour of television as humanly possible. While serving as a U.S. Army infantryman in Iraq, a bomb hit his Humvee and Martinez, just 19 at the time, woke up in a hospital bed in Germany with over 40 percent of his body charred.

"My mother was standing right at my bedside, kind of over me," he told ABC's Deborah Roberts in an exclusive interview for "Nightline." "I picked up my hand as far as I could, and she met me the rest of the way. We held hands and I said to her, I said, 'I told you I was gonna come back.'"

Born Jose Rene Martinez in Shreveport, La., he was raised by a single mother from El Salvador. His father left the family when Martinez was 9 months old, and to this day he has never spoken to him.

"I was always a happy kid and a lot of the credit goes to my mother, you know, for allowing me to just be a kid and enjoy life," he said.

Growing up, Martinez was a bright child who dreamed of playing football and whose major worries at the time centered around girls, athletics and his hair.

"As a young man I heard from people, 'Oh, he's handsome, he's handsome.' I never heard anyone say, 'You have a great personality,'" he said. "I had curly hair, the girls loved to play with my curly hair, you know that was my little pride thing."

But then a football injury forced Martinez to think about alternatives for his future. Devastated by the news that he would not be able to play football at the college level, he said everything changed when he saw a TV commercial for the U.S. Army.

"Something just went off in my head and I thought to myself, Well, maybe, maybe this can be a possibility," he said.

At 18, Martinez enlisted and started training as an infantryman in Fort Benning, Ga. He was deployed to Iraq, where after just three weeks of duty, a routine drive became a fight for his life.

"They said, 'Martinez, it's your turn to drive,' so I jumped in the driver's seat, you know, and it was again routine for me to do it, no hesitation at all," he said. "Even though I'm at war, I'm not processing that I'm at war. I had one hand on the steering wheel, the window was halfway down, and, you know, I'm driving as if I'm driving down Sunset Boulevard, being cool, 19 years old."

Martinez said he remembers his fellow troops laughing as he drove the Humvee, when suddenly he felt an enormous boom – a roadside bomb had slammed into the truck and exploded.

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