J.R. Martinez is known for a lot of things. The 37-year-old former U.S. Army soldier, who survived a roadside bomb in Iraq, has acted on “All My Children,” won “Dancing with the Stars,” and is a New York Times Best Selling Author, motivational speaker, husband, and father.
It’s no wonder the name of his podcast is “REBIRTH with J.R. Martinez.”
“I believe parts of me died the day I was injured. Other parts of me were born,” he said. “I call it a rebirth because this is essentially my second chance at life.”
While Martinez was injured at 19, he got out of the military at 22. He wanted to continue to serve but the Army said he couldn’t. Still, he stayed in the service as long as possible so he could receive the best healthcare.
His journey has been challenging both physically and mentally. More than 30 percent of his body was burned during the 2013 incident. He spent nearly three years receiving outpatient treatment at a hospital and had 34 surgeries, including many skin grafts and cosmetic surgeries.
He struggled with a loss of identity in both his physical appearance and his professional career.
“What purpose do I have in this world and how am I going to be able to find that purpose, especially with these scars on my body?” Martinez said. “And that is what started to then feed into a lot of my emotional and mental wounds where I became depressed, I became angry, I became resentful.”
After he left the Army, his struggles began. He felt lost without the connection to his military community. While he was keeping himself busy, he wasn’t addressing his feelings.
“When I tell people I’m lucky to be here today, it’s not simply because of what I survived in Iraq,” he said. “I’m lucky to be here today because of what I survived at 22, 23, 24 years old. I was of age, I was drinking. I was drinking recklessly. I put myself in scenarios that I could have hurt other people, I could have hurt myself.”
One night when he was 24, Martinez lashed out at a fellow veteran. He was angry and wanted to fight his friend, but instead, his friend told him he needed to cry. He realized he still hadn’t mourned his experience. He says as a Hispanic man, he wasn’t used to sharing his feelings and didn’t have the tools to handle his emotions. He started going to therapy.
The one thing that kept Martinez going was talking to fellow veterans.
Back when he was receiving treatment at a San Antonio hospital, a nurse asked him to visit a fellow patient. Martinez knocked on the door and entered into a dark room. After a 45-minute conversation with Martinez, the servicemember turned on the lights.
Martinez started visiting other patients and realized he was helping them and himself.
“I had found purpose again,” he said. “I had found a way to serve again in a completely different way. But this is what’s fueling me and driving me every single day.”
Martinez is honored to help veterans find their voices. He wants to challenge and motivate them to be their best in civilian life.
What’s missing is that focus on mental health. According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, 16 veterans commit suicide each day.
“We need to create this space where we allow veterans to understand that the stigma associated with talking and being vulnerable, and understanding that speaking about their truth is not a sign of weakness,” Martinez said. “The real sign of weakness is your unwillingness to go and get the proper help, and to acknowledge that there are some elements of you that have changed whether you’ve seen combat or not.”
Martinez wants to help veterans find employment. He says while companies should see veterans as “assets and not liabilities,” many companies don’t know how to engage veterans with language and culture.
He’s also calling on the military to step up. Basic training prepares civilians for military life but there’s no reverse training to help them transition back into civilian life.
“I think our military has to do a better job of equipping veterans when they’re transitioning out of the military, whether it’s because of an injury or not,” Martinez said.
Instead, he says veterans feel pushed out the door at a time when they still need camaraderie and support. Early in his recovery, Martinez’s battlemates checked on him. But when they stopped checking in, he felt resentful. He urges veterans to always check in on each other.
“We are tied to one another for the rest of our lives because of what we endured, because of what we experienced that no other person can relate to,” he said. “That is our experience and our experience only. It is our responsibility to be there for one another.”