The first week of February is National Burn Awareness Week, but for ABC's Dancing With the Stars winner J.R. Martinez, every day is an opportunity to focus on people who have suffered burns.
Martinez, 28, says he's always been on the dance floor at parties but has never danced professionally. Still, he earned a pair of perfect 10s from the Dancing judges. "The dance competition gave me an opportunity to show America and the world who I am and to share my message about the cause," he says.
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In 2003, Martinez was a soldier in Iraq when the Humvee he was driving hit a land mine. Flames burned more than 40% of his body. Agonizing as his injuries were, he says he gained much more than he lost from the experience.
"It took me a couple of years to fully believe and to say this is a blessing," he says. "It wasn't until I saw how much of an impact I was able to make on people in my life, as well as on people I didn't know."
It started in the San Antonio burn ward, where Martinez spent nearly three years. He shared his story and his decision to be positive with a badly burned patient. Seeing that patient's depression begin to lift led Martinez to speak with more burn patients. Word of his success spread, and he found himself invited to address veterans' groups, schools, and other organizations around the country.
The American Burn Association estimates that 450,000 people were treated for burns in 2011. About 10% of those required hospitalization, many in specialized burn centers.
'You Are Not Alone'
Martinez's message to other burn survivors is straightforward: "The most important thing is to understand that you are not alone. Second, know that you will get better," says Martinez, who for three years played an injured soldier named Brot Monroe on the former ABC soap opera All My Children.
In 2010, Martinez joined the board of directors of Phoenix Society for Burn Survivors, a Grand Rapids, Mich.-based nonprofit founded in 1977 to improve burn care and to support survivors (phoenix-society.org).
What's next for Martinez? He says he wants to keep acting and write a memoir. And dance, of course.