J.R. Martinez onstage at Target's Outer Spaces event

Turning the Page: J.R. Martinez on Pushing Past Adversity to Find Your Purpose

Years before the military tragedy that would change his life forever, before he’d go on to become an actor, best-selling author and motivational speaker (and take home that mirror ball trophy) J.R. Martinez’s life goals looked a lot like other teenage boys’. He faced the same kinds of adversity too, and like many kids do, he learned to adapt.

Turns out, overcoming adversity has been a recurring theme in J.R.’s life. Last week, he stopped by Target’s Minneapolis headquarters for an Outer Spaces talk with our team, co-hosted by Target’s Military Business Council. There, he shared his story and spoke about the importance of making the most of every situation.

J.R. Martinez faces the audience during his Outer Spaces talk

The tough times started early for J.R., watching his mom leave an abusive relationship and getting bullied at his Arkansas high school. “I got picked on for my middle name (Rene, with one ‘E,’—the guys’ spelling, I’d tell them!) and for my haircut with the rattail in back (my mom cut it off; I think she still has it somewhere). We moved three times before graduation, and I didn’t apply myself to schoolwork.”

After a move to Dalton, Ga., ahead of his senior year, school finally became more enjoyable, but J.R.’s grades didn’t improve. “I wanted to be a pro football player, but when it came time to go to college, I couldn’t go to the schools I wanted or even play on a college team because of my academic record.” Luckily, what he did do is make a plan—in a notebook, he made a list of all the things he wanted to do. Like go to college. Travel the world. Give back to the country that gave him and his mother so much. Make a difference. That list would stay with him the rest of his life.

In 2002, J.R. joined the U.S. Army, training at Fort Benning, Ga. “In my mind, this path would let me travel the world, experience things, grow up. I was naïve; never really thinking that war would be a possibility in my life.” But in the spring of 2003, he was deployed to Iraq. “I was a private, the lowest rank, and had to pay my dues. But as I completed missions with my unit, I was part of something bigger than myself. I learned about teamwork, and that my job—and all jobs from private to general—were important in different ways. That felt good, and I started contemplating a military career.”

But about a month in, J.R. was severely wounded when his Humvee hit a roadside bomb. “I was trapped inside the vehicle, burning, yelling for help and realizing that I was about to die. That I’d never check off the plans in my notebook, that my mom’s worst nightmare was about to come true.” Two sergeants pulled him from the wreckage, and he was flown back to the U.S. in a medical coma.

Three weeks later, he awoke at the Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, stable, but facing a new life; he’d suffered smoke inhalation and severe burns to 34 percent of his body. “Not only would I have to live with my injuries, but I’d lost my purpose; I couldn’t return to the Army. I was in a dark place for a while.” But J.R.’s mom, visiting frequently during his recovery, inspired him to have a little faith and a good attitude. “I took out my notebook of plans and turned the page. Now, it was about finding something positive to put in it every day.”  

J.R. began visiting other burn patients in between his own treatments, and discovered a new passion in helping service members transition back to civic sector. “I stared speaking, doing interviews in both English and Spanish across the country. And then I tried motivational speaking, and loved the connections I felt to my audiences. We all know what it feels like to get knocked on our ass; it’s something everyone has in common, and there’s strength in helping each other through the roughest times.”

Today, J.R. continues to use his story to inspire others, speaking to U.S. troops at military bases around the world and at dozens of universities, nonprofits and Fortune 500 companies. He’s a spokesperson for several organizations that support veterans and the burn-survivor community. He appears on TV a lot, including recent stints on ABC’s “All My Children” and “Dancing with the Stars.” And to keep challenging himself, he’s finishing up his first year of college at Fordham University.

J.R. Martinez stands at left talking to a man and a woman after the event

J.R.’s advice for the Target team? “Everyone deals with change in their personal and professional lives, and no one can do it alone. What plans do you have in your notebook? Lean on your colleagues and pool your different strengths to carry out those plans. The beginning of your book may be written for you, but it’s time to pick up the pen and write the rest of your legacy.”

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