The Pentagon’s used to seeing stars on the shoulders of its generals, but today Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and other top generals were rubbing shoulders with dancing star and Iraqi War veteran JR Martinez, the latest winner of ABC’s “Dancing with the Stars.”
As an Army soldier, Martinez was severely burned during the initial invasion of Iraq in 2003. He won the hearts of “Dancing with the Stars” voters and fans to win the latest installment of the popular ballroom dancing show.
Panetta counts himself as a fan of the show and called Martinez the day after his win to congratulate him and extend an invitation to the Pentagon for a personal meeting.
According to Pentagon spokesman Capt. John Kirby, in that conversation Panetta told Martinez his belief that he was “a testament to the strength and the resilience of our wounded warriors.”
Kirby said Martinez told Panetta that he “credited his military training and experience for his performance on — and his ability to prepare for — the show and reaffirmed his pride at having once served in uniform.”
This morning, Martinez visited Panetta in his private office. But it was the walk down the Pentagon’s corridors to Panetta’s office that proved how much star power Martinez has even among Pentagon workers accustomed to seeing other kind of military stars, the ones with stars on their shoulders.
Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs Doug Wilson said Martinez accommodated every request for a handshake and photo from ”young military aides, seasoned officers and civilian assistants [who] poured out of offices to meet and congratulate the ‘Dancing With The Stars’ winner.”
Once he finally made it to the Defense Secretary’s office, Martinez received a warm welcome from Panetta and other senior Pentagon officials, including Deputy Defense Secretary Ash Carter and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey.
According to Wilson, Martinez thanked Panetta for the invitation and stressed his intention to assist Panetta and Dempsey “in any way possible in helping their efforts to better connect the American public with America’s military veterans — particularly wounded warriors. ”
During his brief visit, Martinez also had the chance to meet Army Chief of Staff Ray Odierno, the former commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, who told Martinez how proud he was that he had become a new and positive national symbol of the accomplishments of America’s wounded warriors.
On Saturday, Martinez will visit Fort Campbell, Ky., home to the 101st Airborne Division, to visit the unit he served with in Iraq.
He’ll meet the new members of Company D, 2nd Battalion, 502nd Infantry Regiment and talk to them and their families about his personal story.