Go ahead. J.R. Martinez doesn't mind if you ask him about the scars on his face, head, neck, arms and hands. He knows how he looks to others. The 21-year-old U.S. Army corporal was so horrified the first time he looked at himself in a mirror that he stopped eating, refused to speak to anyone and seriously considered killing himself.
He has undergone 27 surgeries -- the longest lasted 11 hours -- in the 18 months since a land mine planted in Kabala, Iraq, turned him into a human fireball and trapped him inside the Humvee he was driving. His buddies finally pulled him out, and his sergeant cradled his head in his hands like he was a baby, rocking him back and forth, back and forth, telling him that he was going to be all right. All Martinez could do was scream: "My face! My face! My face!" And each time he would try to touch his face, his sergeant would swat his arm away. When they loaded him onto a Black Hawk helicopter, Martinez passed out. He woke up three weeks later.
Cpl. J.R. Martinez, 21, works with the McLean-based Coalition to Salute America's Heroes to motivate injured veterans.
(Wendi Poole For The Washington Post)
Now he uses his scars to help others in the military. "To catch people's attention," he said. "I am so confident that if you will sit down and talk to me, that you will not notice the scars anymore. You will see that I am still a human being, that I have a sense of humor and like to go and have a good time."
Martinez is a spokesman for the Coalition to Salute America's Heroes, a McLean-based organization founded last spring by Roger Chapin, a West Coast businessman who has created several nonprofit veterans support groups dating to the Vietnam War.
Martinez has been recruiting other wounded soldiers at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio as well as in the wards of Walter Reed Army Medical Center in the District. The coalition was formed to help fighters severely wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan with job training and placement as well as modifying homes or building new ones for people who use wheelchairs.
The coalition is planning its "1st Annual Road to Recovery Conference and Tribute" at Walt Disney World in Orlando in early December. Chapin said the coalition will cover all expenses for veterans and their families who attend the conference. As of last week, Chapin said, 618 military members and their families had registered. There is room for about 1,200 guests.
Chapin is chairman of USAopoly, which creates and produces special editions of the game Monopoly with college, city, sports team and other themes. He has pledged some of his money to fund the conference. He also is holding a fundraising lunch next month in Washington with retired Gen. Tommy R. Franks as the featured speaker. He said he has sent out more than 1,400 invitations to corporate officers and professional associations and hopes that those who attend the lunch will be the foundation of a fundraising drive. Chapin also founded Help Hospitalized Veterans in 1971 and since then, working with the Department of Veterans Affairs, has distributed more than 20 million therapeutic arts and crafts kits to patients. He also raised more than $12 million for his GI Gift Pac organization, which distributed 880,000 gift packs to military members during the Persian Gulf War.
The December conference would be the largest gathering of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans and wounded fighters. In addition to entertainment, attendees will hear from motivational speakers and be able to attend seminars on education, job training and employment opportunities. As of Friday, 1,101 U.S. fighters had been killed in Iraq and 8,016 wounded.
"I think there will be a lot of mutual reinforcement going on," Chapin said. "The soldiers will be able to make new friendships, and their families will have a chance to bond. I think that it will be a very, very valuable experience."
Secretary of Veterans Affairs Anthony J. Principi has agreed to allow his department to be part of the conference and is considering attending.
Chapin said he formed the coalition to honor the wounded and to offer them practical help, advice and support as they make a transition to new lives -- some badly scarred like Martinez and others missing arms, legs or the ability to move any muscle below the neck.
"Particularly with paraplegics," Chapin said, "it is important to get a guy a meaningful job that has the potential to give him a productive and rewarding future. It is too easy for a lot of these guys to take a disability check and say, 'To hell with it.' "
Martinez met Chapin this year when the businessman took about 30 wounded troops at Brooke Army Medical Center out to lunch. Martinez was so moved by Chapin's desire to help him and his fellow soldiers fighters that he volunteered to help spread the word and recruit members.
Martinez was born in Shreveport, La., and grew up there and in Hope, Ark., before moving to Dalton, Ga., his senior year in high school. He moved to Georgia to play football at Dalton High School, part of his plan to get a college football scholarship. He played strong safety, and his dream was to play in the NFL.