San Diego, California - J.R. Martinez never wanted to be a motivational speaker. That was never in his plans.
But the wounded U.S. Army veteran, actor, advocate and best-selling author found himself center stage at Tuesday’s Live Well San Diego Advance telling his story and inspiring the estimated 1,300 attendees to take control of their lives and use their personal stories as fuel to help others in the San Diego community.
The Advance was all about “Connecting the Unconnected to Live Well” as Live Well partners and community organizations came together with the County to network and share ideas and information.
There were more than a dozen breakout sessions covering topics such as Connecting the Workforce to the Jobs of Tomorrow, Live Well at Work, Connecting City and County Government to Promote Public Health. There were also more than three dozen interactive booths and exhibits from a variety of Live Well partners.
Martinez, perhaps best known as the winner of season 13 of Dancing with the Stars, was burned over 34 percent of his body when a Humvee he was driving in Iraq drove over a roadside bomb. It exploded, trapping him inside.
He spent nearly three years in recovery at Brooke Army Medical Center and has undergone 34 different surgeries. While in recovery, a nurse asked him to speak to another burn patient and that led him to eventually become a motivational speaker.
Martinez said while he was recovering he had moments where it was hard not to give up.
“It’s 100 percent easy to fall into that space,” he said. “All of us have some sort of wound or scar and there are triggers that we are constantly exposed to that remind us of truth and remind us of our experience.”
He said he had to almost become a hopeless romantic in the sense that you have to believe that one day you’re going to the answer about your purpose.
“In my interpretation, life and God can’t be this cruel to me and say ‘This is it.’ There has to be something else.”
In the midst of having his moments of mental breakdowns and falling into resentment and depression, he would remind himself that was just a moment, and everyone is allowed to have moments. And then you gather yourself and you head out of your house and into the world.
He was making speeches consistently, but it wasn’t until he appeared on Dancing with the Stars that he really found his platform.
He was selected to compete because of his compelling story as a wounded veteran but also because a friend told him to audition for the role of a veteran on the soap All My Children, and he landed the role. But he was portraying a character on that show, so he felt that people didn’t get to see the real J.R. Martinez.
“On Dancing, you saw this component of me that was vulnerable and emotional…I was like this entertainer who was high energy and I was funny and silly and I think people were able to quickly look past the scars and say, oh he’s just like (someone) in my life, and that became what people know me as now,” Martinez said. “And I was able to shape my identity by being on that show.
“It was absolutely crucial for me, and crucial for the people I represent – whether it’s people that were burned, or veterans or anybody that is dealing with some sort of identity issues or change or adversity. They were able to look at me and say, ‘It’s a win for us. Now I feel good. Now I feel I can do this.’”
Martinez said the most important thing he hopes to get across to each other is that it’s important that people know they have value, and that they can share that value with others.
“We all bring value,” he said. “Everyone’s value is different than another person, but we bring something to the table and all of us truly can impact and change the trajectory of our life.
“Whatever happened to us in our life tends to become our identity. And people tend to forget in the mix of losing everything, the one thing you still have within your control is the choice of how you’re going to show up every day.”
Martinez encourages people to take what they’ve learned by going through whatever struggles they have and use that to help other people who are struggling.
“I tell everyone all the time, ‘when you think about life as a book, the first few chapters of that book have already been written based on your family, our society and our history on earth,” he said. “But the middle and the end, that’s up to you.
“You have the opportunity to write it – what do you want that body and that end to be? That’s on you.”