Known for his role as Detective Carlos Alvarez on FOX's hit series “Gotham,” J.W. Cortes wasn’t always an actor. A former transit officer and Marine Corps veteran, Cortes learned the discipline to follow his dreams and change perceptions of men and women who serve.

ARMY STRONG: Returning from Iraq, Cortes re-entered the workforce as an MTA officer. While auditoning for roles, he now ensures veterans get an accurate portrayal on-screen. Photo: David “Day-One” Santiago

A longtime desire

Cortes first performed to an audience as a teenager, singing doo-wop on the subways.

“It became an escape for me," confesses the 41-year-old native of gang-filled Sunset Park, Brooklyn. “In high school, I did my first musical, ‘The Wiz.’ But it wasn't until many years later I realized if I had these dreams, I had to do something about it.”

Making the transition

Having joined the Marines at 18, Cortes was deployed to Iraq in March 2003 as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom. Upon returning home he felt lost, but eventually became an MTA officer. The career change wasn't easy.

“It was a little challenging. I thought it would be taking off one uniform and putting on another.”

But he made it work, grateful to help shape public opinion of the police department while also auditioning for parts.

“So often we see veterans as broken. It's quite the opposite.”

Empowering veterans

Cortes, a board member of the “Got Your 6” campaign, is committed to holding filmmakers accountable when it comes to veteran portrayals.

“So often we see veterans as broken. It's quite the opposite. Many times our veterans come home and are actually civic leaders. I think we can do more to share stories of triumph, resilience, determination and existence as powerful human beings who have a lot to say.”

Breaking barriers

On Veterans Day, Cortes, his father and his young sons Jaiden and Jonah attend a local parade, where he encourages his children to shake the hands of the men and women in uniform.

“Veterans Day is another opportunity for me to erase the mystique and take away that wall.”

Adds Cortes, “I have a tremendous amount of respect for the value of human life. I try to remember each day I'm one of the lucky ones who made it back.”