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 Iraq ripped through his 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 resident is very much alive. While in the hospital, he began sharing his story with other burn victims and became a regular 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 soap “All My Children” and a crowning victory last year on ABC’s “Dancing With the Stars.’
He’s now written a memoir about his life so far called “Full of Heart.” (Hyperion).
“Writing a book has been floating around in my head for awhile,” Martinez says in a recent phone interview. But he didn’t think it was the right time until he won “Dancing With the Stars,” which broadened his appeal beyond soap fans.
He used a ghost writer because he admits “I’m not a writer.” And 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 Maria’s tough past, bad luck with men and her suffering after he got hurt. “It makes me appreciate her that much more,” Martinez says. He also filled in gaps that he didn’t remember after his war injury when he was in a coma, interviewing doctors and nurses as well as the guys who were stationed with him in the Army when the accident happened.
Martinez, who spent most of his childhood in Arkansas, only lived in Dalton during his senior year, attending Dalton High School. But he fell in love with the town and his mother still lives there. “It was a great year for me,” he says. “It felt like home. I still consider it home.”
When he got out of the burn hospital and visited Dalton for the first time since the accident, he was stunned by the hero’s welcome he received. The city held a big rally where his football coach and former teammates spoke. He even received a key to the city. “That really choked me up,” he says.
With his hands partly disabled, he recalls not being able to pick a burger up and a friend quietly cutting up his burger. “People there,” he says, “showed me so much love and support.”
Now living in Los Angeles, he visits Dalton when he can. But he said it’s been more difficult to do so since his daughter Lauryn Annabelle was born in the spring with his girlfriend Diana Gonzalez-Jones.
For now, he’s looking for new TV and film roles since “All My Children” was cancelled.
And he hopes to do a book signing early next year in Dalton but he hasn’t finalized a date.