From PEOPLE Magazine Click to enlarge
No one understands the importance of making a good first impression more than J.R. Martinez. The Army corporal turned actor, whose extensive facial scars are a reminder of the 2003 Iraq bombing he survived, long ago learned how to handle those who are taken aback by his appearance. "People don't know what to say because they are worried it will be offensive," says Martinez, who is competing this season on Dancing with the Stars. "So I just break the ice," which is sometimes a self-deprecating joke about his missing left ear or, more simply, a heavy dose of his infectious smile and optimistic personality. "Within 30 seconds of meeting him," says his girlfriend Diana Gonzalez-Jones, "people fall in love."

That has certainly been the case for the former All My Children actor, who was the furthest thing from a household name before signing on to Dancing. But soon after his debut, Martinez, 28, quickly won over fans thanks to solid performances and his personal story of overcoming obstacles. Now he's a frontrunner to take home the show's mirror-ball trophy. "I'm not just dancing with a star; I'm dancing with a hero," says his pro partner Karina Smirnoff. Adds fellow contestant David Arquette: "He's such an inspiration. I want J.R. to win."

To hear the Shreveport, La., native tell it, if not for the near-death explosion he and three fellow soldiers experienced in 2003, when the Humvee he was driving hit a land mine,"my life would not be what it is today: full of joy, happiness and positivity." On his left wrist, Martinez reveals a tattoo of a watch set to the date and time, April 5 at 2:30 p.m., that his life forever changed.

Moments after the explosion, his fellow soldiers escaped, but Martinez remained pinned inside the vehicle, which was rapidly consumed by flames. "I could see my hands, my skin drastically changing before me in a way you would only see in a horror movie," he recalls. "I could see guys running around, a lot of chaos. I was screaming for someone to pull me out. At 19 years old, every dream, every goal, was gone. I felt my life was going to end right there."

With nearly half of his body severely burned, Martinez, in a medically induced coma, was flown to San Antonio's Brooke Army Medical Center to begin an arduous 34-month treatment and recovery process that included 32 surgeries, ranging from skin grafts to cosmetic procedures. "It was a big moment when they took me off the ventilator," Martinez says, "but that was just the beginning of the battle." The daily ritual of having his body's open wounds scrubbed clean "was a long process, and it was gruesome," he says. "Every morning I was in the shower screaming and yelling. They would have to hold me down. There is no amount of medicine they can give you to take that pain away."

Trying to process what had happened and what lay ahead was difficult for the athletic, curly-haired teen, who dreamed of playing professional football and "did pushups all day long in the Army," says Martinez. After five weeks in the hospital, he insisted on seeing himself in a mirror. The nurse hesitated, but Martinez reasoned, "I'm going to have to live with this for the rest of my life. I might as well start learning how to live with it now." He was not prepared for his reflection. "All my life I was told, 'You are handsome.' I slowly looked up, and I saw Freddy Krueger." His stunned reaction? "That's a freak. That's not me," he says. "I went into this anger and depression. I never did anything in my life that deserved this kind of punishment."

In the days that followed, Martinez lay in bed crying. "I didn't want to live," he confesses. "I knew we lived in a world where we are judged by what people see first." But a turning point came a week later when his mother, Maria Zavala, told her only son, "Whoever is going to be in your life is going to be there because of who you are as a person and not what you look like." After hearing those words, "I had to grieve Jose Rene Martinez dying in Iraq, and, as I looked at it, J.R. Martinez was reborn," he says.

Shortly before being sent home in late 2003, Martinez had a heart-to-heart with a young soldier whose wounds were much worse than his. "I at least had an ear. I at least had a nose," says Martinez, who sat with the soldier in his darkened hospital room for 45 minutes. "I called my mother and said, 'I think I was kept in this world to use my experience to help other people.'" After that, Martinez routinely returned to the hospital to talk with injured vets and soon booked appearances on 60 Minutes, Oprah and CNN to share his emotional story of recovery. He visited military bases around the country, encouraging soldiers to live a full life.

"J.R. goes back to a place a lot of people wouldn't want to go back to," says Smirnoff. "He shares it with people, and he has turned it into a positive message."

In 2008 All My Children held an open casting call for a real soldier to portray a veteran on the show. Martinez went-and soon landed the role of Brot Monroe on the ABC soap, which went off the air in September. An added bonus was meeting Gonzalez-Jones, who was an assistant to the show's executive producer. The two became fast friends, but their relationship didn't turn romantic until late last year, when Martinez suggested the two go out on a date.

"All this time I was looking for the perfect guy, and I had him right next to me," says Gonzalez-Jones, who shares an L.A.-area condo with Martinez and Romeo, their black Labrador retriever. "We were so good as friends that romantically we clicked right away."

Just like the instant connection he's had with Dancing fans. Whether or not he wins, Martinez is confident great things are to come, including writing a book, more acting roles and returning to Iraq "to encourage the men and women who are still there that great things are near." That optimism is typical J.R., says Gonzalez-Jones. "The life he's created," she says, "gives you hope and the feeling that you can do anything."

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  • With Michele Stueven.