WASHINGTON — Combat veteran J.R. Martinez wants you to know that professional dancing is much harder than it looks.
“It’s not as tough as basic training, but it has its moments,” he said, laughing.
“It’s tough, frustrating and exhausting. But, just like the military, you’ve gotta keep pushing through it.”
Martinez will be showing off those new soft-shoe skills as one of the celebrity competitors on ABC’s upcoming season of “Dancing With the Stars,” which premieres in the U.S. on Monday. The 28-year-old soldier acknowledges that he’s an unusual choice for the cast — he’ll be up against actors Kristin Cavallari and David Arquette — but is confident his story and style will win over the audience quickly.
“And I know I have a military loyalty,” he said. “I have a following of military men and women I’m counting on to pull me through each week. I’ve already heard from military families saying, ‘It’s amazing that you’re on there, and we’re going to vote and vote and vote for you.’ ”
Martinez had served in the Army less than two years when he was seriously injured in a 2003 roadside bomb attack in Karbala, Iraq. He suffered severe burns to more than 40 percent of his body, and underwent 33 surgeries over the next three years to deal with the pain and disfigurement.
While recovering at Brooke Army Medical Center in Texas, he spent time working with fellow burn victims on their physical and mental wounds. That grew into a second career as a motivational speaker.
Three years ago, he was cast on the daytime soap opera “All My Children” to play a wounded Iraq veteran, a role written as a three-month cameo that has since grown into a recurring character.
Martinez said he jumped at the chance to compete on the dancing show to push his motivational message out even further. He’s hopeful that civilians will see him and be reminded of the troops still serving overseas, and that military viewers will be inspired to push themselves into new challenges.
“This is outside of my comfort zone,” he said. “It’s a personal challenge for myself. I’ve got a little rhythm in me, and Karina [Smirnoff, his dancing partner] is trying to get that out. That’s the biggest challenge right now.”
The pair are also planning “dances to pay tribute to the military and their families,” although he wouldn’t go into further specifics. Martinez did say that he’s already suffered his first dancing injury — a jammed toe while practicing the jitterbug — but said that hurt his pride more than anything else.
“I’m huffing and puffing a bit, but I’m taking control,” he said. “It’s fun, and I’m confident. I think we can win this.”