The room grew silent and people stood as the steady beat of the advancing Color Guard echoed throughout the Multi-Purpose Room of the Student Union at 8 p.m. Tuesday night. “Left, left, left, right… left, left, left, right…”
At the front of the room stood a veteran whose face was scarred—his left eye dragged downward at the corner, the larger part of his ear was missing, and a very large smile spread across his face.
The room erupted in applause as Jose Rene Martinez was introduced, and the man took the stage.
Martinez talked to his audience like they were old friends, asking questions, allowing individuals to respond, and cracking jokes whenever he could. He explained that he had come to Slippery Rock University to share his story, which he hoped would help every audience member at some point in their lives.
He stressed the importance of having a plan, a goal and a dream.
“It’s great to have a plan because it gives you something to focus on… it gives you vision,” Martinez said. “But life is unpredictable. You have a plan and then all of a sudden life happens and you think, ‘What now?’”
Martinez said he has always been a planner. He explained his early plans of playing professional football.
He said he played through his high school years – focusing on and preparing for the day that he would receive a scholarship to attend college and play ball at a Division I university, all the while gaining the experience that he needed to play professional football.
During his senior year of high school, Martinez said he realized that there would be no sports scholarship and so adapted his short-term plans slightly, while still aiming to one day play as a professional. He decided that he would attend a Division II school for a few years to play football and then later switch schools.
Martinez’s dreams were once again dashed however, when he toured his Division II school-of choice and was told that he would not be able to play football for two years because of some course mix-ups between his Arkansas and Georgia high schools.
Not long afterwards, Martinez said he saw an ad on television about joining the United States Army and became quickly convinced that joining the army for three years would allow him to, among other things, go to college, travel the world, and serve his country.
In September of 2002, Martinez enlisted. A month and a half after he finished basic training, at 19 years old, Martinez was deployed to the Middle East. In April of 2003, Martinez was driving a Humvee when the front left tire of the vehicle hit a land mine, and Martinez’s plans were once again thwarted.
While the others were ejected from the vehicle and suffered only minor injuries, Martinez was trapped inside of the burning truck, completely conscious.
When he was removed, he was placed into a medical coma, from which he did not wake for two weeks. He opened his eyes in Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, Texas, where he learned that he had cracked ribs, a lacerated liver, and that 34% of his body was badly burned.
For two weeks, Martinez said he moped around the hospital, ashamed of how he looked and worried that his life was over. A talk with his mother inspired Martinez to make a choice.
“In that moment I made a choice for myself,” he said. “Every morning when I wake up, I want to be positive and have a great attitude, and then when I go to sleep, I want the same thing.”
With a new attitude and enthusiasm for life, Martinez began his recovery. He said at one point, a nurse asked him to talk to a fellow burn victim, and he obliged, recognizing in himself a new ability.
“I gave him something,” Martinez said of the burn victim. “What I gave to him was hope and possibility.”
Soon after, Martinez began regularly visiting other patients in the hospital and giving motivational speeches in public schools and communities.
In 2008, Martinez landed a three-month role on ABC’s “All My Children.” He remained on the show for three years.
Last year, he was offered the opportunity to join the show “Dancing with the Stars” and went on to win the show.
Martinez reminded the audience that everybody has scars, but that with a positive attitude, you can learn to love yourself and the opportunities that life offers.
“Have a goal. Have a plan. Have a dream,” he said. “Believe in it. Trust in it. But if something happens, don’t panic. You can’t lose sight of the things that you want to do in life, but you have to be open-minded to opportunities. You have to be positive in life. You have to believe in yourself. You have to not quit.”