By: Kelly Rouba
Looking back on his childhood, JR Martinez fondly remembers his mother watching the daytime soap opera All My Children as a way to help her learn English. “Because my mother is from El Salvador…when she was pregnant with me, she would watch All My Children and that would be kind of her English 101,” Martinez said.
But what neither them ever imagined was that Martinez, himself, would eventually land a role on the show. “I joined the cast in October of 2008,” Martinez said, adding that his mother couldn’t stop talking about it for months to come. “I think every day, my mother would talk as if I just told her the news and I just got the part. I mean, my mother, there was not a day that went by that she was not excited.”
It was early one morning when the opportunity to join the cast of All My Children practically fell into Martinez’s lap. All of a sudden, a few of his friends e-mailed him with a request from someone looking for a veteran to share his or her story—something Martinez was used to doing.
A real-life war hero, Martinez was severely injured in April 2003, after serving only two months in Iraq. While driving a Humvee, Martinez ran over a landmine and suffered severe burns to more than 40 percent of his body. As a result of the injuries he sustained, Martinez spent the next 34 months in the hospital and underwent 32 different surgeries.
Once he was well enough, Martinez became a sought-after motivational speaker because of his determination and traveled around the country to share his story with various organizations. So when his friends sent him the e-mail request, he responded without hesitation.
As it turns out, “I called and I (got to) speak to the casting director of All My Children,” Martinez recalls. “She said, ‘Basically, what we’re doing is a storyline about an Iraq veteran returning from the War and a love story and his transition back into the civilian world. And we thought instead of trying to get a trained actor to play this part, why not take a risk and see if we can actually get a veteran to play this part.”
After sharing his story, Martinez was offered the chance to audition for the part of Brot Monroe, a soldier who was injured while serving in Iraq. Even though he had no acting experience, Martinez gave an impressive audition and was offered the part.
“When they told me I got the part, I was just overwhelmed with joy, excitement, and everything else,” he said, adding that his mother was just as thrilled. “For her to be able to say, ‘Wow, one day I remember watching that show with these other people and now I’m watching because my son’s on there’—it was pretty odd and pretty cool at the same time.”
Surprisingly, portraying a character that is based on his actual life hasn’t been too difficult for Martinez. “They brought me in to be me and to portray the things I felt…and all the adversity that I had faced in relationships and stepping out into the real world with a physical injury,” he said, adding, “I wasn’t having to become a serial killer or become a father. I had to be a soldier—someone that felt pain and was trying to find a life, which I went through. So in a sense, it really wasn’t hard at all.”
However, because he doesn’t have the training or experience some of the other actors on the show have, Martinez has been working with an acting coach to improve his technique. “I want to grow at this,” he said. “That’s what life is about; it’s about taking on a new challenge and doing your damndest at it.” Originally, Martinez was only slated to play the role of Brot for 13 weeks, but his contract was extended. Martinez was thrilled to stay onboard and likes having the opportunity to create awareness among viewers because he feels many people don’t know how to approach those with certain disabilities.
“Different things, whether it’s severe arthritis, whether it’s burns, whether it’s an amputation, whether it’s any kind of disfigurement or whatever you’d like to call it, we’re not used to it on a daily basis—to seeing it like we see superstars that are perfect in magazines and movies,” Martinez said.
“As a nation, to an extent, I don’t think we are ready to deal with things like this. We see certain things, but we don’t like to accept them because we are too caught up in our own worlds. I think that’s one great thing about the platform I’ve been given on All My Children is I’ve been able to say, ‘Okay, time for me to go out there and sit there and educate the world on a different level.’”
As Martinez continues to work to create awareness, he hopes others like him will follow suit. “People do deal with (reacting to those with disabilities) differently and that’s why I encourage people that have some kind of (health) issues to go out there and talk to people about it. It doesn’t have to be on a wide scale like I’m doing it on TV every day; it can be to your local community. It can be to people at your church, people at your school, people that you hang out with. Just educate people.”
He also recommends that those who work to promote disability awareness develop a bit of a “thick skin.” “Not everyone is going to deal with it the way we would like them to deal with it, but we can’t get discouraged by one person,” he said. Although Martinez is able to speak about his condition with ease now, it wasn’t always that way. In fact, just going out in public was traumatic at times. “People don’t see the emotion that you have inside of you and the scars, so to speak, inside of you,” Martinez said. “I had so much pain, in a sense, that despite everything I went through, I was still recovering from that emotionally, psychologically, mentally…it was still a challenge to go out in public knowing that people were going to look at you differently.”
Fortunately, “once they get to know you and get to understand you and get to understand everything—a lot of people are cool with it. They look at (the scars) differently.”
Prior to being on All My Children, Martinez’s story was featured in many media outlets, from People magazine to the Oprah show. But being on All My Children has been especially meaningful to him for several reasons.
“One, it educates America about the military, which is a big thing in my mind and my heart,” he said, adding. “It’s not about political beliefs; it’s about supporting our men and women who serve and make sacrifices for us.”
“Two, it educates the people that have the scars in the world, that have a ‘disability,’ that if you have a great attitude, if you believe, dream, go out there trying to do something good, you never know where your life’s going to take you. I mean, look where I am! You can be in Hollywood! Just because you’re different in appearance or something, it doesn’t limit you at all.”
“Three, I think it educates America on how to deal with people that have disfigurements (and) that have disabilities.”
Martinez has also become highly regarded for his charity work and has donated much of his time to several charities in particular, including Iraq Star Foundation, Building Homes for Heroes, The Phoenix Society for Burn Survivors, Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, the USO (United Service Organizations), and The Fisher House.
He even received an award for his involvement with the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America group. “They do just unbelievable work,” Martinez said, adding that he admires how the group fights for benefits for troops on Capitol Hill and in other capacities.
In regards to the Iraq Star Foundation, “the one good thing I love about this organization is they provide cost-free cosmetic surgery to troops who have been injured in Iraq and Afghanistan and have some kind of disfigurement,” Martinez said, noting that the surgery is done by top surgeons in Los Angeles. “It’s an amazing step for these men and women to just slowly feel a little bit more comfortable within their body. It’s one of the factors helping these men and women get back to living a productive life…after their injury.”
Martinez also volunteers and serves as a spokesperson for The Phoenix Society for Burn Survivors. “The Phoenix Society is basically a non-profit that’s set up to help burn survivors from around the world of all ages basically cope and deal with their burns. Being in the military and having spent 2 ½ years in the hospital recovering myself, and I was one of the first that was injured in Iraq, so I was able to see a lot of burn survivors come through the hospital where I was treated.”
However, Martinez said he was still shocked when he saw the number of burn victims who attended the organization’s conference in North Carolina more than a year ago. “It was hundreds of them and it really hit me,” Martinez said, adding, “This organization does so much psychologically for these people who step in and fight this daily battle in a sense of survival against disfigurement.”
Martinez also supports Building Homes for Heroes, a New York-based non-profit group that was started by his friend after he heard Martinez speak on a radio show. “The whole purpose is to build homes for troops who were injured in Iraq or Afghanistan,” he said, recalling how they recently made a home accessible for a gentleman living in Florida who is paralyzed. The house has lifts, an accessible bathroom, lower counters, and wider hallways, among other features. “It’s just the perfect house for him.”
Martinez said it is a good feeling when he gets involved with charities, and he tries to encourage others to volunteer as well. “I think we all have the ability to really touch someone and impact someone’s life in a really powerful way, but we don’t see it sometimes and we don’t think we have that ability, but we really do.”
“I don’t do things to feel good about myself,” he adds. “I do them because I know I have something to share. At the end of the day, yeah it is going to help me in a lot of ways because I’ll learn something from the people that I’m helping.”
When not working or volunteering, Martinez has been writing a book about his life story and composing some positive hip hop music. His ultimate goal, however, is to have his own talk show. “I want it to be something where I’m spreading positive messages every single day. I feel that there are so many great stories in the world that we don’t hear about. If I’m able to bring those stories to people on a daily basis with a sad beginning but just an unbelievable ending, that’s what we truly need in this world. We need more positive stuff. There’s so much negative stuff that’s put on TV, all the garbage that’s put on TV. We need more positivity. That’s what’s going to help this country and turn it around and fix it.”
For Martinez, life is all about focusing on the word “ability” instead of “disability.”
“I would say the biggest thing that I want people to know is that there are things in life that are not going to make any sense by any means but it’s a matter of just sticking with it,” he said, adding, “(Life) is about finding a way to turn a bad situation into a good situation, even if it’s by smiling everyday even when you don’t feel like it.”