Not all scars are visible, says J.R. Martinez
By CHARLES OLIVER | The Daily Citizen, Dalton, Ga. | Published: October 19, 2015
DALTON, Ga. (Tribune News Service) — Wounded in combat in Iraq more than a decade ago, J.R. Martinez says he doesn’t focus on what the nation owes him but on what he owes his fellow veterans.
“I recently spoke at an event in D.C.,” he said in a telephone interview last week. “And I pointed out that when we talk about soldiers who have been wounded, we often focus on those of us who have had physical wounds. We are sexy. There are all these nonprofits, all these organizations that want to put us on the front of a pamphlet and pull the heartstrings of Americans and say ‘Look at what this young man or this young woman is going through.’”
Martinez was serving in the U.S. Army and driving a Humvee in Iraq in March 2003 when its left front tire struck a land mine. The explosion left him with severe injuries and burns over 38 percent of his body.
But he says there are veterans out there with wounds society doesn’t consider “sexy.”
“There are so many veterans who not only have invisible scars but feel like those scars are unworthy of being talked about, unworthy of being helped,” Martinez said. “There are a lot more veterans who have PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), who have traumatic brain injury than there are of us who have visible wounds.”
“I think it’s my job, as a veteran with physical wounds, to speak up for those veterans whose wounds aren’t visible. It’s my way of continuing to serve,” he said.
That’s why, Martinez says, he jumped at the chance to take part in “Debt of Honor: Disabled Veterans in American History,” a documentary by Ric Burns dealing with how America has treated its returning wounded warriors and on medical advances in treating wounded veterans. It will air on PBS on Nov. 10, the night before Veterans Day, at 9 p.m. as part of its “Stories of Service” series.
Martinez, who is now an actor and author, began working as a motivational speaker and as an activist on veterans issues even as he was completing his own recovery.
“Back in 2003 when I was wounded, 2004-2005 when I first started speaking out, a lot of my sound bites were politically correct. ‘I was doing what my country required of me.’ ‘I signed on the dotted line,’” he said. “Not that I didn’t really believe that or don’t still believe that. But now, I’m taking a different approach. I’m saying it’s frustrating when you see the numbers, when 22 veterans commit suicide each day. Now, I’m issuing a call to all Americans about how we can take a stand and how we can all be a part of the solution, how we all need to serve those who have served us.”
He said “Debt of Honor” gave him a chance to stand with other veterans speaking out on those issues. The documentary features. among others, former U.S. Senator and Veterans Affairs Administrator Max Cleland, a Georgia native who lost both legs and one arm as a result of injuries he received in the Vietnam War.
“It seems that these days everyone wants to do something for veterans, especially veterans who have been wounded. But some of these projects are questionable, and I really want to associate myself with projects that are going to be informative, that are really going to be educational, that are really going to be talking about what’s going on within the veteran community now,” he said.
Martinez was born in Louisiana, and lived there and in Arkansas before moving to Dalton just before his senior year of high school. But he has said that Dalton is the first place he felt was home.
“When I go out and talk to people and give speeches in different areas, I talk about how empowering it was for me to have Dalton embrace me three months after I was injured, the first time I was out of the hospital,” he said.
But Martinez says he realizes many veterans can’t count on their communities that way.
“For those veterans, for those families, for anyone, I tell them ‘I’m sorry that your community isn’t there in the capacity that I experienced. But your community isn’t the only community. There are people out there who understand and who are supportive and have resources they want to provide to help you adopt. You might have to seek them out, but they are there,’” he said.
Martinez says that he’s glad to see that so many people want to help wounded veterans, but he offers some caution.
“These nonprofits that take veterans out to ball games or get their pictures taken with a celebrity or give them a luxury vacation? That’s not going to help them in the long run,” he said.
Martinez says people should make sure they are helping a nonprofit that is focusing on at least one of five different issues of particular concern to veterans: housing, mental health, health care, education and employment.
“Groups that are focusing on those five things are going to have a long-term impact,” he added. “On my website (jrmartinez.com), there are some nonprofits I’ve personally looked at. I’ve seen their financials, I’ve seen where the money goes. I know they are making a difference.”
And he says he really wants to encourage people to watch “Debt of Honor.”
“It’s a really great documentary. It’s one I ask everyone to watch and become a little more aware of what’s going on in your country and your own backyard,” he said.
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