ATLANTA — As a kid, J.R. Martinez was scared of Freddy Krueger, the disfigured menace in the “Nightmare on Elm Street” film series.
After a bomb in war-town Iraq ripped through his Army Humvee and burned one-third of his body – including part of his face – Martinez felt like he had become the living embodiment of Krueger. He was horrified and, for a brief time, suicidal.
Nine years later, the former Dalton, Ga., resident is very much alive.
While in the hospital, he began sharing his story with other burn victims and soon became a fixture on the speaking circuit as an inspirational war survivor.
His gift for gab and zest for life led to a regular role on the since-canceled TV soap opera “All My Children” and first place last year on ABC’s “Dancing With the Stars.” And now he’s produced a memoir about his life: “Full of Heart: My Story of Survival, Strength and Spirit” (Hyperion, $23.99).
“Writing a book has been floating around in my head for awhile,” Martinez said. But he didn’t think it was the right time until he won “Dancing With the Stars,” which broadened his appeal beyond soap fans.
“I’m not a writer,” said Martinez, explaining why he worked with a ghost writer, Alexandra Rockey Fleming. Plus, given his full slate of speaking engagements, “It was difficult for me to write all this by myself, given the deadlines I had.”
The most difficult part was researching his mother’s tough past, including her bad relationships with men and the suffering she endured after Martinez was injured. “It makes me appreciate her that much more.”
He also had to fill in post-injury memory gaps from when he was in a coma, interviewing doctors and nurses as well as fellow soldiers stationed with him when his Humvee was hit.
Martinez, who spent most of his childhood in Arkansas, lived in Dalton only during his senior year at Dalton High School. But he fell in love with the town. And his mother, Maria, still lives there.
“It was a great year for me. It felt like home. I still consider it home,” he said.
When he got out of the hospital and visited Dalton for the first time since the blast, the war vet was stunned by the hero’s welcome.
The city held a big rally. His high school football coach and former teammates spoke. He even received a key to the city.
“That really choked me up,” he said.
While in Dalton for the rally, Martinez recalls not being able to pick up a hamburger because his hands were partly disabled. A friend quietly cut it up for him. “People there showed me so much love and support.”
Now living in Los Angeles, he visits Dalton as his schedule permits. But visits to Georgia have become more difficult since the spring, when he and girlfriend Diana Gonzalez-Jones had a baby, Lauryn Annabelle.
In the meantime, Martinez is looking for new TV and film roles. And he hopes to return to Dalton early in the new year – this time for a book signing.
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