As J.R. Martinez raised his right arm and extended his left to deftly clasp the hand of his partner Karina Smirnoff in an emotional ode to fallen servicemen and women, he symbolically reached out to fellow burn survivors, demonstrating with his scarred face and body that it's possible to move beyond the dark days of doubt, despair and depression and reclaim a meaningful life.
Eight and a half years earlier, however, when a landmine exploded along a hot, dusty road in Iraq, Cpl. J.R. Martinez wasn't so sure he'd have that chance.
On April 5, 2003, Martinez, a 19-year-old infantryman with the 101st Airborne Division, jumped into the driver's seat of a Humvee to lead an Army caravan into the city of Karbala. Suddenly, a landmine detonated beneath his feet. Fuel-fed flames seared his clothes, burned his skin and incinerated the dreams of a lean, slim high school football player from Dalton, Ga., who a year earlier had declared to his mother: "I'm going to be somebody. I'm going to do something with my life."
As he remained trapped inside the truck, he thought: "This is where my life ends. Everything I wanted to do no longer exists," Martinez recently recalled in an interview between Season 13 rehearsals of ABC's "Dancing With the Stars,"where the novice ballroom dancer is considered a contender for the championship. As he felt pain in his face and numbness where flames had destroyed nerve endings that day in 2003, he saw no future. "I honestly thought it would be better if I hadn't survived the accident."
But military medics and doctors began aggressively treating him in Iraq, and ultimately at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio. They fought to save his life and preserve his mobility. They placed him on a ventilator because of severe smoke and heat damage to his lungs. Once he arrived in Texas, they began the excruciating rituals of removing dead, burned skin and surgically grafting healthy skin from unaffected areas of his body.
After seeing his face for the first time, he fell into a deep depression, uncertain what his life could hold. However, one day, after speaking with his mother, "I made a choice that I was going to get through every single day. And the answer would come to me, and it did." He visited another burn patient and realized that was helping him change his outlook. Martinez began making regular visits to many patients. "That," he says, "is when J.R. Martinez was born."
As he endured what ultimately would be 33 reconstructive and plastic surgery procedures, therapists put him through hours of painful stretching exercises so he might once again lift his arms, straighten his elbows, open the fingers of his contracted hands, and turn his head from side to side. He also had to re-learn to walk. "From lying in a bed, being in a coma, my body forgot how to do those things," he said.
"It was tough, it was painful, but because I did those things, because they pushed me to do those things, is why I am where I am today," Martinez said.
In all, Martinez spent 2 ½ years in and out of the hospital, and by 2006, was again playing basketball and lifting weights. As he regained physical strength, he committed himself to staying fit, which has served him well on the dance floor.
Smirnoff had complimented him on his flexibility, which he displayed with an airborne Russian split in a jumping jive in Week 2. "I have good stamina and good endurance," he said, which helped him gracefully glide through a Viennese waltz in Week 1; dip and swing Smirnoff in a rumba in Week 3 and don pink tails to deliver a humor-tinged foxtrot set to "The Pink Panther" theme on Monday night's fourth show, when he and Smirnoff earned 26 points from the judges. That put them in second place behind Ricki Lake and Derek Hough's 29-point "Psycho" tango, before audience votes were counted.