Burn survivor finds post-military career in Hollywood
After a roadside bomb burned 34% of his body, J.R. Martinez could not escape the change in his appearance when he looked in the mirror.
What lay underneath was worse.
The attack in Iraq on April 5, 2003, left Martinez scarred and angry. He only had been in the Army for seven months, and now he was confronted with the end of his military career in one explosive moment. He also no longer recognized himself.
Martinez, 37, is perhaps best-known for his role on “All My Children,’’ which he landed with no acting experience. “All My Children,’’ the long-running ABC soap opera, went off the air in 2011, the same year that Martinez won “Dancing With the Stars’’ and not long before he served as the grand marshal of the 2012 Rose Parade.
Before those opportunities arrived, though, Martinez dealt with a combustible mixture of bitterness and self-loathing bubbling just below his damaged skin.
He needed help.
Martinez needed Dan Vargas, whom he now calls his best friend.
“It’s more than a friendship,’’ said Vargas, a tech sergeant who retired in 2007 after two decades in the Air Force. “He’s family. I love him unconditionally.’’
Martinez was in a coma for three weeks after the attack. When he awoke, he learned of his promotion from private to specialist. He was hospitalized for nearly three years, enduring close to 40 surgeries.
He met Vargas in 2004 while recovering at a military hospital in San Antonio where Vargas was volunteering. The first time they went out together was when Vargas took a group of wounded veterans to a Toby Keith concert.
Martinez was standoffish in the beginning, Vargas recalled. A few years later, they were in Indianapolis when Martinez challenged Vargas, 17 years his senior, to fight.
Vargas did not start throwing fists. Instead, he countered with honesty.
“I said, ‘Look, you’re holding on to a lot of things that are going to end up ruining you and killing you if you don’t deal with them,’’’ Vargas said. “I understand you’re angry at the situation, but you need to realize it’s OK to cry and let it out, and let’s deal with it and move on.’’’
At the time, Martinez said drinking and reckless behavior fueled his anger.
“[Vargas] created this safe space where I didn’t feel threatened or alarmed to cry and to share with him my feelings,’’ Martinez said. “It was in that moment that I felt this huge weight was coming off my shoulders.’’
Vargas encouraged Martinez to audition for the role of a wounded veteran on “All My Children.’’ They live about an hour apart in Texas, where Martinez shares a home with his wife and young daughter. Vargas is her godfather.
They talk daily, ending each call with “I love you.’’
“I can’t even tell you how proud I am,’’ Vargas said. “I get emotional talking about it.’’
Martinez and Vargas often play the what-if game.
What if Martinez hadn’t been injured? Martinez said he still might be in the Army, might have deployed multiple times or might have been killed.
And Martinez, a motivational speaker averaging about 45 engagements annually, likely would not have seen his message of perseverance and survival resonate so widely.
“Yes, it has been a struggle to remind myself that I am still an attractive man, that I’m not disgusting, that I’m not this horrible, disfigured individual walking amongst a society that looks completely normal,’’ Martinez said. “I have to remind myself that my wife loves me the way that I am.
“Those are things that I constantly have to do, but it’s not to say that if I had not been injured, I would not have another set of obstacles that I have to daily remind myself that I am enough, that I am worthy.’’