J.R. Martinez wears many hats: reality TV star, author, motivational speaker, wounded warrior. During the Legion's national convention, they were all on display as Martinez served as master of ceremonies on the first day of floor action during the event in Indianapolis.
Before he took the stage, Martinez spoke with The American Legion Magazine about life's crossroads, his future in Hollywood and how he continues to serve.
Why did you accept the invitation to be the Legion's master of ceremonies this year?
Because The American Legion does a lot of things for veterans. And they've been one of the top organizations doing a lot of great things. And so for me, this is my way of continuing to serve. This is my way of having face time with a lot of those who have served before me, who have fought for benefits and resources that I benefit from today. And it's important for me to be able to come and show face and say to them that I haven't forgotten about my service; and even though I'm out of the military, my service continues in a different capacity. And it's my way of just letting them know that I'm going to continue to do what I can do in order to continue to pass on the torch to the next group of servicemembers who come through.
How was your experience during and after your deployment shaped – if it was at all – by veterans service organizations like the Legion?
After? Being from a small town in Georgia called Dalton – when I went home for the first time after my injury, after getting out of the hospital, The American Legion was there and they welcomed me. They actually invited me and my mother out to bingo night a couple of times. And it was nice to just be able to get out of the house, to be among people who to some extent understood what I was going through. So they ... uplifted me. They kind of gave me that sense of guiding me and things that I can do in life. And just kind of being a good source of inspiration and just saying, "Go out there and just try to do everything you want to do and you can do it, and we're here for you. If you need help, if you fall down or whatever it may be, we are here for you." And I think that's a pretty powerful thing for servicemembers to know, is that these service organizations are here for them. And a lot of times we have a tendency to get caught up and we don't think that they'll understand, or they're not necessarily for us, or we're not injured enough or we haven't been through enough or we haven't deployed enough, we haven't done enough years in the military and all that ... just unfortunate fictional material that's out in the world. Every servicemember – no matter who you are, no matter what you've been through – these services are here for you.
A lot of people think that Hollywood is out of touch with "the real America," including the military and their families. From your "boots-on-the-ground" perspective, do you think that's true?
I think there's two sides to this, and I've learned this since stepping into the entertainment industry four years ago – that, any story that's a real story in the world, when it goes into the hands of Hollywood, it'll never necessarily be exactly the way we know it when we saw it out here. There's always a Hollywood twist to it, so it's maybe cleaned up a little bit more. Maybe they have a tendency to kind of overdramatize a certain aspect of the story. Maybe they underplay it – it's never going to be exactly the same way that we all experience a story in real life. And I think that Hollywood has to do that, to an extent, so it's appealing to the rest of the world.
However, yes, there are certain elements of Hollywood that – they're not true to, you know, the military and to America and to what it's about. And Hollywood has a big influence on the direction that this country is going in. And unfortunately – and yes, I was an actor for three years; yes, I was on a reality show – but an actor on a show ... acting is acting. You're just telling a story. But the reality show was a positive, influential show. There wasn't anything negative. But Hollywood, with all the stuff that they're putting out, all the material – it's just guiding our youth and our future and the next generation to what I think is a pretty negative place, with all the garbage that's on TV now. So I think a lot of times – and I think also what is important is for people who are not in the Hollywood world, especially when you're talking about military personnel, it's important for us to kind of understand the Hollywood aspect of it, and to be able to learn how to maneuver and to work with that aspect of it. Because at the end of the day, that's an amazing platform for our stories to reach more people than we can ever reach.
Do you think it's more an issue of Hollywood trying to give people what they think they want? Or is it more the way Hollywood would want it to be?
You look at television now and you see all the drama, all the nonsense that's on television now, and it's because it's what people want. And it's, unfortunately, that same concept of – you hear all the time that people say, as bad as we don't want a train wreck to happen, we'll watch it happen. And in some ways it's sad, and it's entertainment at the same time. But I think that has a lot to do with what Hollywood has put on the plate for the American people to be able to eat. And it's what you have fed them – I mean, we are essentially babies to the entertainment world. We are babies to technology. And when you put a bunch of garbage on our plate ... we eventually have to eat something, and we will eat garbage. And I think that we in a lot of ways as a society have been fed – not all television, but some nonsense television, that Hollywood now has projected and feels and believes that that's what the American people want. But I don't necessarily know if I buy that. I think people do like drama; however, I think you can balance that out with goodness. And I don't think Hollywood is willing to risk the goodness side of it. They're willing to put as many train wrecks on television as possible, because they know that's what people will watch, unfortunately.
What have you found most surprising, or gratifying, or both, about the way people have rallied around you?
I would say probably – I mean especially since I joined the entertainment industry, but even four years before that when I was already doing speaking, I was already doing national media, I was already going to big events, I already had a voice to an extent (but then it expanded, of course, with the entertainment platform) ... I think the biggest thing that I've seen is just that people are so appreciative of servicemembers. You know, a lot has changed in regards to people's mentality when you talk about what everyone talks about, which is the Vietnam era. A lot has changed when you talk about the Desert Storm era. People now are more patriotic and I think people now understand a little bit better that even though you may not agree with the war in Iraq or Afghanistan or other parts of the world, that that's a battle that you take up with somebody else, not necessarily the individual who has worn the uniform who served multiple deployments.
I think that's the biggest thing that I've come in contact with, is that a lot of people appreciate the willingness of every single individual, man and woman, and family member and best friend who support them – their willingness to sacrifice and say, "I don't know necessarily why I'm going to Iraq or Afghanistan, but I know that this country was under attack on 9/11. I know that the military presents great opportunities for me. And I'm going to go. And I put my life, my future, my path in the hands of our commander in chief, whoever that leader is at that time. And wherever they tell us to go, that's where I go and I just try to do the best that I can." So I think the biggest thing that I've seen is just people kind of know how to differentiate the servicemember from the political party that's actually making these decisions.
Can you talk a little about your book?
You know, "Full of Heart" is a book that I'm really excited about. I think the biggest reason I'm excited about it is because everyone, when they look at me, they know me from a couple of things: "Dancing With the Stars," of course, and they know me as a servicemember who was injured in Iraq in 2003. But why I'm excited about the book is that it shows other elements of my life of things I have faced, things I have gone through in my life that ultimately gave me the tools that I needed in order to be able to overcome that major "boom" in my life. And hopefully, it's going to be able to show other people that everything that you've gone through is preparing you for what you have already gone through, or what you will go through, in life. And it exemplifies that I have different things in my life where I just found ways to persevere, I found ways to adapt, I always changed with what was changing around me, I was a chameleon to life, and I adapted to the situation and I made that situation work. I never panicked, I never necessarily wanted to go back to the other place that I was in. I looked at where I was in that moment and I said, how can I make this moment the best moment of my life? And because I had that positive attitude, because I made those decisions, because I was committed with life, look where I was able to be. And that doesn't mean that everybody's going to turn into, you know, a television star or be on the cover of a magazine; but you'll have your own success and your own spotlight and your own life and your own community and your own way, and you have to be appreciative of that.
Is your focus going to be motivational speaking in the near term, or are you also pursuing more acting roles?
After "Dancing," I wanted to do two things: I wanted to go back to speaking, which is where it all started for me, and I wanted to work on the book. But now that the book is completed and I've done a lot of speaking, I'm going to start looking into other acting opportunities. I can honestly say I've gotten the full entertainment bug – what I mean is that I have ideas of possibly creating shows, trying to put shows on television that I think are good material, the opposite of the drama, but good things that I think people in this world want to see - especially in this country, with the economy, with war, with all kinds of illnesses, all kinds of things that people are battling every single day. I think people want to see good things. So I'm going to continue to explore acting opportunities, but I also have ideas of trying to pitch shows and put them on television. So I've gotten the full bug of this whole entertainment thing.
In a nutshell, what do you want people to learn from your experience?
That life will always change. You will always be presented with new roads. The road leading up to that crossroads has prepared you to make the right decisions for yourself. And when you make the decision at that crossroads to go down another road, you go down that road with no thoughts of, oh, did I make the right decision? You just go down it and you find a way to make it work. And you enjoy the scenery, and you find a new destination. And maybe you have the same destination, but you get there a different way. And I think that in some way, that's just the biggest thing that I want people to understand, is that life will never necessarily happen the way we want it to happen. But when it happens, we must take control of what we have and mold it, and become an actor in our own film – and how do we want the ending to be for everyone else to enjoy?
"Full of Heart: My Story of Survival, Strength and Spirit" will be published by Hyperion Oct. 30. Visit www.JRMartinez.com  for more information.