J.R. Martinez, retired soldier who suffered injuries in Iraq and then went on act and dance and is now a motivational speaker, addresses the 2012 Workflex Conference. Photo by Steven Purcell.
CHICAGO—Jose Rene “J.R.” Martinez knows a thing or two about flexibility.
The 29-year-old retired soldier, former soap opera actor and “Dancing with the Stars” champion spoke Oct. 24, 2012 at a dual event—the closing session of the SHRM 2012 Diversity & Inclusion Conference & Exposition and the opening of the 2012 Workflex Conference co-sponsored by the Society for Human Resource Management and the Families and Work Institute
The goal of the two-day event following SHRM’s diversity gathering was to offer solutions to diversity and inclusion leaders and HR practitioners about implementing effective and flexible workplace strategies.
Flexibility was a theme that resonated with Martinez, who chronicled his life story in his new memoir Full of Heart (Hyperion, 2012).
“My story is about flexibility. That’s how I’ve been able to be successful in life. My story is about change. It’s about the fact that you can adapt and overcome.”
His first lesson in flexibility came when Martinez was 9 years old and he moved with his mother from Shreveport, La., to Hope, Ark., so his mother could take a better job. In Arkansas, Martinez said kids teased him for being an outsider, for having a Cajun accent and even for having a middle name that sounded like a girl’s name: Rene.
But Martinez had dreams of becoming a professional football player and focused on working out and doing well in school. Then an injury in his senior year of high school dashed his chances of earning a football scholarship and caused him to re-examine his college plans. He decided to apply to a small college, instead. When he was told by an admissions officer that his high school coursework would make him ineligible to play football for two years, he felt that his dream of becoming a pro football player “was completely destroyed.”
Watching TV one day, he saw an ad for the U.S. Army and hatched another plan: he would join the army, postpone college and after that pursue the football career he always wanted.
Following basic training at Fort Campbell, Tenn., he was surprised to learn that he soon would be deployed to Iraq. Less than a month into his deployment, in the spring of 2003, he was driving in a convoy in Karbala when his left front tire hit a landmine. Three other soldiers in the burning vehicle with him were ejected, but he was trapped inside. He suffered smoke inhalation and received severe burns to more than 40 percent of his body. Just 19, he was placed in a medically induced coma to help him recover and spent the next three months in the hospital. He would eventually endure 33 surgeries.
“I fell into a deep, dark depression. I blamed. I had regrets. I thought that it would have been better if I had died.”
The advice he received one day from his mother served as a wake-up call that put him on the road to recovery.
“She said, ‘Don’t quit. Believe. Stay positive.’”
He took her words to heart. “In that moment I made a choice.”
He returned to the hospital after his release to visit other injured veterans. “It helped me more than it helped them,” he said. Soon, he began getting requests to speak. Then a friend told him about an audition for a part on the soap opera “All My Children.” He got the part and it stretched from a three-month role to a three-year stint.
“Everything that I’ve been through prepared me for this moment right now,” Martinez said. “I’m here today, nine and a half years after that big boom went off in my life. I’ve learned that no matter what your path is, you’re going to hit curves. There’s a reason they call them ‘learning curves.’ ”
He urged his audience to apply lessons of flexibility and creativity to all aspects of their lives, including their work lives.
“It’s up to you to make work, work. Come up with your own ideas. Figure out how to make your career work for you.”
Desda Moss is managing editor for HR Magazine.