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.
Now he uses his scars to help other soldiers. "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 soldiers severely wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan with job training and placement as well as modifying homes or building new ones for soldiers 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 soldiers 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 soldiers during the Persian Gulf War.
The December conference would be the largest gathering of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans and wounded soldiers. In addition to entertainment, the soldiers 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. soldiers 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 soldiers at Brooke Army Medical Center out to lunch. Martinez was so moved by Chapin's desire to help him and his fellow soldiers 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.
Martinez's mother, Maria, came to the United States from El Salvador in the early 1980s to escape the war there. He has an older sister who still lives in El Salvador. When Martinez was 5, another sister, Anabelita, 9, died from an illness she had had since birth.
His plan to play pro football was derailed because he had taken too many technical courses in high school and not enough college-prep classes to get into a Division I college. A few weeks after graduating from high school, he ran into an Army recruiter at the mall and decided to join.
In September 2002, he went to basic training at Fort Benning, Ga., and was assigned to the 2nd Battalion, 502nd Infantry Regiment of the 101st Airborne Division at Fort Campbell, Ky. In March 2003, he shipped out to Iraq.
On April 5, 2003, less than a month after arriving, Martinez was at the wheel of a Humvee, part of a convoy escort. Three others were in the vehicle with him. He remembers turning toward the others as they joked about how "cool" it would be to get a Purple Heart.
"I just turned my head back to the road, and boom," Martinez said.
The Humvee burst into flames. He couldn't move, couldn't escape. He remembers red and orange flames being all around him and his eyes closing tightly involuntarily. He'd open them again, be blinded by the light and they'd close again.
After a moment or two that seemed like forever, he had a vision of his mother, standing by the side of a grave, being handed a folded U.S. flag. Then there was another vision. His sister, the one who had died, came to him. "She told me I couldn't go because my mom needed me. When I heard that, I just started screaming."
The next thing he remembers was being out on the ground, his sergeant holding on to him, the skin on his face, arms and hands practically melted away. Then there was darkness when he passed out and was transported first to Kuwait, then to Germany and finally to Brooke Army Medical Center.
Martinez always prided himself on his appearance. He said that he was a "pretty boy" in high school and that his looks and his football ability, combined with an outgoing personality, made him popular.
When he awoke after three weeks, his mother was at his side. He had spent a good amount of time in surgery. Parts of his ears were removed because they were so badly burned. His internal organs had been severely damaged when he inhaled the heat and smoke while trying to stay alive inside the burning Humvee.
The lowest point of his recovery was the day he looked in the mirror for the first time. He was devastated and angry and lost his will to live -- the will that had kept him alive up until that point. His mother rescued him from his despair. "I know what your problem is," he recalled his mother telling him. "You are worried about girls. You are 19, and you are worried about not being able to get girls."
"Mom, look at me," Martinez said.
They talked for a long time and, gradually, Martinez began to think of himself differently than the face he saw in the mirror. He has taken that image of his sister appearing to him in the burning Humvee as a sign of what he should do with his life. "My sister works through me, I believe," he said. "I think my sister is the one who gives me the courage to do what I do today -- to go out and speak to people. I think honestly . . . this is my personal mission in life."
So he travels the hospital wards, using his scars to tell his story, to comfort and encourage and to recruit for the coalition. He has another surgery scheduled between now and December, but he is looking forward to the conference in Orlando.
"It will be very emotional to gather so many troops together at one time in one place," he said. "We'll be able to talk to each other and say, 'Look, this is how I've dealt with things -- you can do the same.' "