J.R. Martinez's emotional routine on Dancing with the Stars Monday night was part tears of pain and part tears of joy, the former soldier told PEOPLE.
"I remember the struggle," said Martinez, 28, who was badly burned while serving in Iraq. "I remember how tough it was for me ... trying to find my place in this world."
"But then there were also tears of joy," he added.
Martinez was overcome while doing the rumba with his partner Karina Smirnoff to Tim McGraw's "If You're Reading This," about soldiers killed in action.
"Sometimes in life, things happen so fast that you don't have an opportunity to really sit back and appreciate what you've done," Martinez said after the routine, which he dedicated to fallen soldiers. "Tonight was that moment. It felt like it really sunk in. Wow. I'm on this stage. I'm on Dancing with the Stars, and now I have an opportunity to really honor and pay a tribute to other service members and families that have gone on the same journey that I've gone on."
And now, even Martinez's competitors are cheering him on.
"J.R.'s story really touched me," Kristin Cavallari told PEOPLE.
"J.R.'s story is just so touching," fellow contestant David Arquette agreed. "He's such an inspiration ... I want J.R. to win!"