J.R. Martinez Burn Recovery: From Coma to 'Dancing With The Stars'

PHOTO: Martinez Burn Recovery
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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.

Martinez Serves on Board of Phoenix Society for Burn Survivors

Little wonder that Martinez' chose to serve on the board of the 15,000-member Phoenix Society, a burn survivors' organization whose symbol is the mythical bird that arose from the ashes. His informal counseling sessions with fellow patients led him toward a career as a motivational speaker, and gave him the drive to audition for the daytime drama "All My Children," where he played a GI who returned from Iraq. His TV fans encouraged him to try out for DWTS.

Not only has Martinez transfixed the studio audience since making his dancing debut, he's also won over the judges, who have been impressed by his combination of strength and vulnerability. "Heroes, I believe, they're normal people, ordinary people who do extraordinary things," Judge Carrie Ann Inaba told him as she stifled tears after last week's performance. "Tonight you did something extraordinary. You touched us all."

Judge Len Goodman told him that every season "somebody comes along who dances to a standard that is totally unexpected. This season, that is you."

Sitting at the edge of the dance floor during his performance and judge's reviews was Martinez' special guest, Jenna Bullen, 15, of Oklahoma City, who was burned over 95 percent of her body when she was just 3 and ignited a water heater in her family's garage. She and Martinez met taping an episode of "Dr. Drew's Lifechangers" talk show, which airs on Oct. 18, and filmed a public service announcement for the Phoenix Society that had its preview on Monday night's entertainment show "Extra," which sponsored it as well. Like Martinez, Jenna hopes to become a motivational speaker.

Martinez routinely impresses those he encounters with his charm, natural ease and resilience.

"He has this zest for living and he doesn't let his problems get in his way," said Dr. David J. Barillo, the burn surgeon who first treated him in Texas. Barillo, who now practices critical care medicine in Charleston, S.C., said that although he cared for more than 800 burned servicemen during the war, Martinez' face remains " very vivid in my mind."

Barillo credits Martinez' extraordinary recovery to being "a remarkable, highly motivated person. I think his flexibility and his success in dancing goes to his emotional strength and his extreme motivation to work through this."

When Barillo finishes skin grafts, he tells burn patients, "I've put the anatomy back the way God designed it. Whether it works or not depends on you. What you have a year from now is what you're going to live with the rest of your life." Martinez worked 200 percent at his recovery, Barillo said.

The Rev. Jim Schellenberg, the Catholic chaplain at the BAMC burn center, said he saw something special in Martinez early on and told him: "You have got a great gift of a positive attitude. That's going to be your strength for your future and you must stay with that," he told ABCNews.com.

"I knew he wasn't going to squander his gifts, but that he was going to use his gifts and he was going to end up in a good place," Schellenberg said. "I didn't think that it was going to be TV." However, he's become one of Martinez's fans, along with recovering GIs and civilians at the burn center. When Martinez dances, he dances for all of them.

The biggest fans of his dancing may be members of the Phoenix Society, who see him as a role model, said Amy Acton, the group's executive director. He was busy rehearsing last month when the group held its 2011 World Burn Congress in Cincinnati, so he videotaped a greeting from inside the dance studio.

"His exposure on 'Dancing With the Stars' is helping us to let people know there is this whole support community network," for people who frequently lack access to "community support and the tools they need to thrive again," said Acton, a nurse and fellow burn survivor. "It's rare we have someone like JR that sees the big picture. He's an inspiration to our community because people who aren't there yet, where he is, see the possibilities."

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