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Army Vet, Dancing With the Stars Champ J.R. Martinez Tells Story of Hope

Dancing with the Stars winner chronicles his journey in a Martin Luther King Day Jr. event at Advocate Christ Medical Center.

On a day when the nation reflects on the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and his dream for America, a standing-room-only audience in Oak Lawn heard from a young man whose dreams were once blown apart by a roadside bomb in Iraq.

J.R. Martinez, whose world was turned upside down in 2003 when he was badly burned after his Army Humvee burst into flames, has become a national and even international celebrity of sorts—partly for his suffering and sacrifice, but more for the inspiring, step-by-step recovery he has made—which has included a “Dancing With the Stars” triumph seen by tens of millions of TV viewers. 

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In Chicago as a motivational speaker and to promote his book, Full of Heart: My Story of Survival, Strength and Spirit, Martinez was the keynote speaker Monday at “Overcoming Challenges…Embracing Hope,” this year’s King Day “Multicultural Taste Celebration” at Advocate Christ Medical Center in Oak Lawn.

“Martin Luther King talked about 'I have a dream.' He believed in his dream. He wasn’t just a man of platitudes, he was a man of action. He knew if he was going to speak it, he was going to have to act it,” Martinez said.

Speaking to an appreciative audience that received him well and seemed to hang on his words, Martinez employed a sometimes serious, sometimes folksy style to make his points about overcoming adversity in pursuit of life’s dreams.

Martinez recounted the story of his life and dreams and his determination to see those dreams to become a reality.

Using humor to describe his youth and teenage years, the Shreveport, La. native translated his oft used phrase “just sayin’” for the audience. It happens to be his version of the old Southern saying, “bless your heart.” Martinez had the audience in stitches as he gave an example of how “bless your heart” was used.

“Did you see that dress she was wearing? Bless her heart. Did you see who he came with? Bless his heart.

“You can say anything you want about anyone, but as long as you add bless his/her heart, you were still on the list for heaven,” Martinez said.

In between the laughter, he recounted his journey from Shreveport to Hope, Arkansas, where his dream of becoming a professional football player was born, to Dalton, Georgia, where he played on his high school football team. He searched for an NCAA Division II college, knowing he couldn’t afford a Division I school.

When the college told him he couldn’t play for two years, his life took another turn and after overcoming his mother’s objections, Martinez joined the Army. The year was 2002 and he was 19 years old. 

In March 2003, Martinez was deployed to Iraq. As he described this chapter in his life, the audience chuckles quickly turned to a respectful silence. Everyone knew what was coming. As Martinez described the day he and his fellow soldiers climbed into the Humvee, accomplished one mission and set off on another one, the audience seemed to brace itself.

Then Martinez described the sound a roadside bomb makes, and audience members seemed to flinch en masse.  That was the second, Martinez said, that led him on the road to a new dream.

After overcoming 33 surgeries and three years in the hospital, Martinez’s new reality was a life as an actor, motivational speaker, dancer and author.

He urged the audience to take something away from his story, to “put it in your pocket.”

 “You never know when you’ll need it to pay it forward.”

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