From the halls of the Pentagon to the corridors of an uptown hotel, “Dancing With the Stars” victor J.R. Martinez got a hero’s welcome Thursday.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta rolled out the red carpet for the former infantryman, badly burned in Iraq. Gen. Ray Odierno and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey were among the brass who turned out to greet him. “They’ve got stars on their uniforms, and they’re looking at me like I’m the star,” Martinez mused later.
At the Marriott Wardman Park, where Martinez was due to attend the National Rehabilitation Hospital gala that night, a hotel employee flagged the 28-year-old down for a hug.
“I don't usually get starstruck, but this has made my year!” she gushed.
We can stop joking about the name of the show now: “Dancing With the Stars” has finally launched a top-tier celebrity. The campy yet wildly popular show turned sportsmen like Helio Castroneves and Hines Ward into US Weekly luminaries and rejuvenated faded entertainers like Donny Osmond and Jennifer Grey.
But few have had the wild trajectory of Martinez — a small-town kid who enlisted at 19 and nearly died less than a year later when his Humvee hit a landmine. A man whose natural charisma now shines through his heavy scars, Martinez rebounded into a career as a motivational speaker and actor on “All My Children.” It was a niche kind of fame, but fans begged him to try “DWTS”; when the soap was cancelled, his people made a call.
Martinez understands that viewers may have originally warmed to his “triumph over adversity” story.
But “I didn’t want the sympathy vote,” he told us Thursday. “I didn’t want the patriotic vote. I wanted to show people I could dance.”
By the second episode, when he showed off his jive, Martinez was gratified to realize he was surging on the merits. “Then it was, ‘He’s a great dancer, and he’s a hero.’”
Who’d ever figure that the military community would warm to seeing one of their own cha-cha-cha in kitschy costumes? But at a time when many Pentagon brass worry that returning soldiers are patronized by pity, Martinez had a swagger to cut through the sympathy. His conquest of the competition, Pentagon spokesman Doug Wilson told us last week, was “the talk of the troops.”
What next? A book, of course, and a return to speaking and acting. Also, a new role as an advocate for veterans, who he fears will face tough times as U.S. presence in Iraq and Afghanistan shrinks.
“When the guys come home now, they have the comfort of knowing they don’t have to integrate back into society because they’ll be deployed again soon,” he said. “These guys are really going to have to reintegrate.”
Read earlier: J.R. Martinez congratulated by Leon Panetta, 11/23/11
Seeing past the scars of battle, 10/24/04 (** J.R. Martinez profiled by Washington Post before he was famous **)
Troops feel more pity than respect, 10/25/11