At age 20, J.R. Martinez was in a San Antonio hospital, learning how to walk with third-degree burns on 34 percent of his body.
At age 28, he was learning how to ballroom dance on Season 13 of “Dancing With the Stars,” which shaped him through more experiences.
Martinez shared his remarkable journey and optimistic attitude with Shippensburg at the H. Ric Luhrs Performing Arts Center Tuesday, April 3.
Martinez’s personable nature was evident when he put on a red Shippensburg University hoodie and talked about the culture shock he experienced in Shippensburg.
“I finally understand the purpose of a one stop shop. Pizza, gas, water and apparently live bait,” Martinez said.
The first half of his speech was filled with happy-go- lucky anecdotes from his childhood, including moving from Louisiana to Arkansas, growing up with the middle name Rene, and using his tongue to play Nintendo while his hand was in a cast.
Not long into his speech, the audience learned his original ambition was to become a professional football player. At age 18, Martinez realized his dream of going to college was threatened by his high school career and finances. He learned to adapt and overcome these circumstances by joining the Army, which led to him being quickly deployed to Iraq.
The happy-go-lucky feel of his speech soon came to a halt when he vividly retold the experience that turned his life upside down.
The Humvee he had been driving in Iraq had hit a landmine. The Humvee was flipped over and Martinez was trapped inside the flaming vehicle for almost five minutes.
After being in a medically induced coma, he was rushed to a San Antonio hospital where he spent three years in recovery.
While in recovery, Martinez learned to use humor as a coping method.
His use of humor to cope with his circumstances was evident while he was telling the audience a story about a really successful time he spoke.
“The audience was really into me, I was on fire… no pun intended,” Martinez said.
Martinez’s humor and high spirits did not go unnoticed by hospital staff, who asked him to speak to another burn victim.
After that his dreams shifted from professional football player to professional motivational speaker. After his recovery, Martinez starting speaking about his experiences and later found work as an actor.
For three years, Martinez played Brot Monroe, a war veteran, on the ABC soap opera, “All My Children.” In the summer of 2011, Martinez agreed to compete in Season 13 of “Dancing With The Stars,” and ended up winning.
Martinez elaborated on this success on “All My Children” and “Dancing With the Stars” and the string of events that led up to that time in his life.
“I’m a firm believer everything happens for a reason. Sometimes we spend time trying to open the wrong doors, we miss the open ones,” Martinez said.
His speech at Shippensburg was inspiring, funny, touching and real.
“I want to be one of those speakers who keeps it real. I don’t want to be the speaker I fell asleep on in high school,” Martinez said.
His speech was followed by a lively and warm Q&A session, where one woman asked for and got a hug.
During the Q&A, Martinez explained the meaning behind the tattoo of a watch on his wrist.
“I could never tell military time. I ended up buying a cheap military watch and was wearing it when the Humvee exploded. My wrist wasn’t burned because of that watch,” Martinez said.
“There really is a purpose for everything we do in life.”