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.PlayABC News
WATCH JR Martinez's Recovery

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.

J.R. Martinez Starts Recovery

"I can actually see out in front -- in front of the vehicle and see a bunch of soldiers running around," Martinez reflected. "I could hear them screaming out the other guys' names, trying to see where they are. By this time I could see my hands completely change."

"I could see my hands, my skin slowly just kind of deteriorating," he continued. "I can see my hands changing in a way that quite honestly you only see on television, you see in movies, and I literally thought to myself that my life was gonna end… I thought I was gonna die."

Martinez was evacuated to Landstuhl, Germany, for immediate care, and then transferred to Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, Texas, where he would spend 34 months undergoing 33 cosmetic and skin-graft surgeries. Martinez said the memories of the first time he awoke out of a coma are still stunningly vivid to him, and the road of rehabilitation was torturous.

"That was when the real war was about to start for me," he said. "When everything really sunk in for me is when, after about five days, after coming out of my coma, being taken to the shower, and I'm literally having to scrub my body, and it's one of the most painful-est things that I've ever experienced."

After months of frustrating and painful recovery, Martinez said he demanded a nurse give him a mirror one day so he could see his face for the first time since the blast. He said he was unprepared for what was reflecting back to him.

"I started to cry. It wasn't what I was accustomed to seeing for 19 years of my life," he said. "I was completely taken back, shocked that this could actually be me…. I was scared because I knew that I was alive and I was going to have to continue to live with this one way or another."

It was his mother who eventually got him to stop feeling sorry for himself. One day, Martinez said she called to check on him and he snapped at her, but she wasn't about to let him get away with it.

"She said, 'I know what your problem is,' and my response was like, 'Sure, sure you do,' and she said, 'Your problem is you're worried about girls,'" Martinez said, laughing. "She said you have a lot of things to learn in life, J.R., but one of the biggest things that you have to learn now that whoever is going to be in your life, whoever is going to love you, they are going to love you for who you are and not what you look like."

It was then that 19-year-old Martinez said he became a different man who saw the world in a whole new light. He became an unofficial motivational speaker to other burn victims at the hospital and was such an inspiration that soon he was speaking to veterans groups, schools and large corporations.

His big break came in 2008 when he landed the role of Iraq war veteran Brot Monroe on the hit ABC soap opera, "All My Children." Audiences fell in love with him, and what was supposed to be a short three-month gig stretched into an in-depth three-year role. The show not only gave him a fresh start, but was also where he met his long-term girlfriend, Diana Jones.

Read: Diana Jones about Martinez: "I see a hot, sexy man"

When "Dancing With the Stars" came calling for its 13th season this year, Jones remained a rock of support for Martinez through each week of intense dance routines and judging.

J.R. Martinez with his dance partner Karina Smirnoff on 'DWTS.' Credit: ABC

"I think I also tend to sometimes keep it real for him, you know, it can get so big and get so crazy," she said.

While the past few weeks on "DWTS" have been grueling and the finals are approaching, Martinez said he is already turning his thoughts toward serious future plans – such as starting a family. But tomorrow night, he could be crowned the dance champion. His girlfriend said she already believes he is.

"When he puts his mind to something, he just excels at it," Jones said. "He can, in my eyes, do anything, even watching the competition, it's like, he's gonna win."