Verner: Scars can't hide indomitable spirit

Published 12:00 am Sunday, November 13, 2011

There was a time when I lumped “Dancing With the Stars” in with flavored daiquiris, romance novels and hand-knitted teapot cozies. It just wasn’t a proper thing for a grown man to be involved with, not even in the privacy of his own home with the curtains drawn, the doors locked and a leaf blower running in the background to mask the ballroom music.
Then I met J.R.
For some of you, those initials will evoke memories of Larry Hagman’s conniving character in the old “Dallas” TV series. But if you’re among the 13 million or so fans of ABC’s DWTS, J.R. is J.R. Martinez, now one of the semifinalists in the series that teams celebrity amateurs with professional dancers like Karina Smirnoff, J.R.’s partner.
Most of the celebrities on the show are people who’ve gained a measure of fame in other fields. Rikki Lake, another semifinalist, is a TV personality. Hope Solo plays soccer. Rob Khardashian has a famous name featured in a reality series.
J.R.’s there because he got blown up in Iraq.
Words from J.R.: “I had dreams. I have goals. No way I could do it all alone. God shines on me & I choose to follow — I’m trying to make it a better tomorrow!”
J.R. was a 19-year-old soldier when the Humvee he was driving hit a landmine in April 2003. Three fellow soldiers escaped. He was trapped in the burning vehicle. He sustained burns over 40 percent of his body, lost his left ear and subsequently underwent almost three years of reconstructive therapy, including 33 skin grafts and surgeries.
A picture of him in uniform before the explosion shows a smooth-cheeked, handsome man barely out of high school. The first time he looked at himself after emerging from a medically induced coma, he was horrified. In a video on his website, he describes his reaction: “I became depressed. I had regret. I started to blame. I started to question. It didn’t make sense to me why I was 19 years old and my life was completely upside down. I just thought to myself that I would have been better off if I wouldn’t have survived. It was a tough time in my life.”
He credits his mother, Maria Zavala, with helping him through it. She told him that “whoever was going to be in my life, for whatever reason … they were going to be in my life because of who I am as a person, not what I look like.”
He made a decision. “I chose … to fight, to try to be upbeat, to try to be positive every single moment from that day on.”
Words from J.R.: “I’m human. I feel, laugh, cry, make mistakes, learn from my ways & pray to improve everyday.”
The first time I saw J.R., I saw terrible scars, facial disfigurement, vestiges of the kind of physical suffering that can shrivel the heart and cauterize the soul.
Then, as I learned more about him, I saw unfathomable courage, an indomitable spirit and an extraordinary determination to seize the day, as well as the dance floor.
Finally, as I watched J.R. flow through waltzes, strut through tangos, shimmy and shake through sambas and rumbas, I saw something else.
I saw beauty. I saw grace. I saw feet quickstepping and jiving a message of unmitigated joy in life.
The man can move. And move others.
A recent waltz had the audience on its feet midway through the set, earning the season’s first perfect score. Judge Carrie Ann Inaba described the performance as “magic.”
Words from J.R.: “When I step into the public. I’m not just representing myself. I represent burn survivors, military, anyone who’s suffered & those who have won!”
J.R. counts himself as blessed.
He made it home alive. He still has all of his limbs and can dance. He isn’t blind or in a wheelchair or unable to perform the daily tasks of living we take for granted. He isn’t one of the many Iraq and Afghanistan veterans (one in five, the Pentagon estimates) who suffer from traumatic brain injury. He isn’t homeless, jobless, estranged from his family or alienated from society.
He’s using his experience to help heal and inspire others, working with wounded veteran groups and their families as well as delivering motivational talks to schools, nonprofits and corporations.
In 2009, the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America gave him their Veterans Leadership Award. Along with his motivational mission, he also has the acting bug and appeared on the ABC soap “All My Children.”
This week, he and his fellow semifinalists will take to the stage again for another series of dances, followed by the elimination show to see who’s left standing.
I’ll be watching, and I’ll be rooting for J.R. to survive, once more, and eventually take home the silver trophy. The guy who can foxtrot is the guy I’d want in my fox hole.
Heck, this week I may even leave the curtains open and cut off the leaf blower.
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Chris Verner is opinion page editor of the Salisbury Post. For more information about J.R. Martinez, visit his website,