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After surviving Iraq, Pine Valley’s a breeze

The police station set of “All My Children” buzzed as the cast and crew prepared for a scene. Sitting behind a desk in his officer’s uniform all ready to go was J.R. Martinez, smiling as makeup and hair artists attended to actress Shannon Kane, who plays his partner on the ABC soap.

“One day I’ll have to get a wig so I know what’s it’s like to be waited on,” he said. “I never have to show up early like everyone else for hair and makeup. I’m camera-ready as soon as I arrive.”

Martinez stands out in the glamorous cast of “All My Children,” one of daytime’s most enduring serials. His face, like much of his body, is badly burned and bears the marks of repeated skin grafts. His left eye slightly droops. His left ear is gone. His shaved head is heavily scarred. A distinctive line separates the smooth bridge of his nose from the burned tip.

Though he doesn’t share the perfect hair and silky features of his costars, it is clear that somehow, Martinez, an Iraqi war veteran who was injured in 2003, fits in. He will be among the cast members participating in a salute to the 40-year-old drama during the Daytime Emmy Awards on Sunday night in Las Vegas.

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His appearance on “All My Children” was conceived in 2008 as a limited run, but now he’s a featured character, playing Brot Monroe, a veteran turned police officer. He has brought gritty reality to the glossy world of daytime soaps while also serving as an inspiration to other vets, wounded or not, who frequently feel lost or ignored when they return from battle.

“I tell people I’ve had these plastic surgeries, so I’m more then ready for Hollywood,” Martinez joked.

The 27-year-old’s role on the soap opera, famous for its fantastic and outrageous story lines, is a far cry from his actual life. When his Humvee struck an anti-tank mine in Iraq, he was trapped inside the blazing vehicle for more than 10 minutes before rescue. He suffered burns over 40% of his body, nearly all of them third-degree. Over the past 2½ years, he has endured 32 operations to repair the damage.

His casting also defies decades of tradition in Hollywood, where characters with physical disfigurements or deformities are rare, and are typically played by actors in heavy makeup.

“Characters being disfigured in soaps has been done a million times, but it’s always been something that is reversible, that can be cured by a miracle surgery,” said Mara Levinsky, features editor of “Soap Opera Digest.” “When it comes to J.R., there were some readers who wrote to us that were surprised it wasn’t makeup. They’re so conditioned into thinking there’s going to be a magic trick at the end.”

The most famous injured vet to win fame before the camera was probably Harold Russell, who lost both of his hands during World War II. Russell received two Oscars for his role in 1946’s “The Best Years of Our Lives,” about servicemen returning home to the harsh reality of civilized life.

Martinez’s long and excruciatingly painful road to recovery is a touchstone for his new, ongoing challenge — infusing reality into the make-believe world of the fictional Pine Valley. He has had moments of insecurity but is just as driven as the 19-year-old who enlisted in the Army because he felt it was the right thing to do after 9/11. He has overcome those doubts with a newfound self-worth and the knowledge his television character has been a balm for some wounded veterans.

“Yes, there are times when I feel, ‘What am I doing here?’” said Martinez, who sports a diamond stud in his remaining ear. “I think, ‘I don’t belong among these people.’” But he added: “I know what I’m here for. It’s bigger than me. I’m here for all the people who are fighting the war, who have scars inside and out.”

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On a recent afternoon at Andrita Studios near Glendale, Martinez is wearing a pink T-shirt that covered his slim, muscular frame. He seems comfortable and at ease despite the relentless pace of taping a daily soap.

His dressing room is small, but functional. As he steps out into the hall, he’s greeted by warm hugs or handshakes from his co-stars. A public address system announces what scenes will be shooting soon. Extras flock to the set, getting their instructions on where to stand from a stage manager.

Says co-star Kane: “It’s been an adventure working with J.R. He’s fresh into acting, but he’s a quick learner…. He’s blended into the show, and it’s like a family. And he’s the clown of the family, always keeping us laughing.”

Martinez plays a character emotionally traumatized by his deep wounds, who struggles to find the will to live. Brot’s fiancée, a female vet who moved to Pine Valley, thought Brot had been killed in the war. He was so filled with despair over his injuries that he didn’t let her know he was in fact alive. The fiancée is now out of the picture (the actress left the show).

Though scars remain, Brot has gradually become more optimistic over the months on the show and has since become a police officer. He has an obvious chemistry with Kane’s character, which could lead to sparks in the upcoming weeks.

On this afternoon, too, Martinez is hosting a special audience. Watching him perform from off camera are a pair of injured Iraqi veterans: a man who lost a leg and a female soldier recovering from an allergic reaction to chemicals. He has brought dozens of vets to the set, and on his off days he travels around the country to speak to veterans.

“J.R. is the ideal wounded warrior,” said Maggie Lockidge, founder of Iraq Star, a nonprofit organization dedicated to providing reconstructive surgeries to wounded vets. “He has displayed a willingness to accept what has happened to him, and moved on. He’s dealt with his despair.”

Barely visible under his police uniform is a tattoo of a watch on his left wrist. The date on the tattoo is April 5, 2003. The time is 2:30. He was wearing a watch the day his world exploded.

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“Hot,” he said. “That’s what I remember first. It was 110 degrees at 8 a.m.”

He was in Karbala, Iraq — a 19-year-old Army enlistee about seven months into his service. Around 2:30 p.m., he was driving the lead Humvee in a convoy to Baghdad. He had one hand on his steering wheel and was looking over at one of his fellow soldiers in the passenger seat when his front left tire hit an anti-tank mine.

“Immediately, there was so much force that the other guys in the vehicle were thrown out,” he recalled. “I could feel the force of the explosion move from the bottom of the truck through my body. I was pinned, unable to move, and I was on fire, screaming at the top of my lungs, ‘Get me out of this truck!’”

“I felt this heat on my face,” he continued. “I remember seeing my hands melt in front of me. I thought, ‘This is where I’m going to end my life.’ The adrenaline kicked in and I was just trying to hold on.”

No one came to help initially. Soldiers had to set up a perimeter around the truck in case there was another attack. The blaze was so furious that no one knew if Martinez was even inside or if he was alive.

He was finally pulled out of the truck, and the pain from the fire suddenly overcame him.

His fellow soldiers were also hurt, with injuries ranging from moderate to serious. They all recovered.

Martinez was placed in a medically induced coma for 3½ weeks. When he learned the extent of his injuries, he was filled with rage and despair. In high school in Dalton, Ga., he was an athlete who was always praised for his good looks. Now that was gone. He had thoughts of dying.

As his recovery continued, his mother helped pull him from the darkness. “Once when I was having a really bad day, she said, ‘You have a lot to learn. People love you for who you are, not what you look like.’”

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Martinez joined “All My Children” in 2008 when producers created a story about the difficulties faced by a war vet returning home. Executives for the show, which has frequently touched on topical subject matter such as the Vietnam War and AIDS, wanted to bring more authenticity to the plot by casting an actual vet, preferably one with some acting experience.

The show reached out to the U.S. Armed Forces and other agencies. Martinez, who was working as a motivational speaker, was interviewed and producers were immediately drawn to his upbeat demeanor and charisma, which outweighed concerns about his acting inexperience — and his jarring appearance.

“Once we committed to having this character, we were not sure how it would work, particularly with someone who had never acted,” said executive producer Julie Hanan Carruthers. “Never in our wildest dreams would we have envisioned getting someone who not only is as talented as J.R., but who has demonstrated such commitment and dedication.”

His battles have not ended. He wants to take acting lessons — he had never even thought about acting before he joined the show. Despite the demands of his glamourous job, he intends to continue his involvement with wounded veterans who need to hear words of hope.

Also on the horizon this week is another surgery — to eliminate the droop in his left eye. The operation and his recovery will be worked into the story line.

“What happened seems so long ago, like another lifetime,” he said. “Sometimes I’ll have a glimpse of it, but I don’t have nightmares or anything like that. There are so many good things in my life now. I’ve found a place where I am happy.”

“It’s a challenge for me to be in this industry, but the bigger challenge is to make this a breakthrough. People like me are looked at differently, and it’s not easy getting an agent or a manager. They see someone like me and say, ‘Ah, we don’t know.’ They feel there’s no way they can pitch someone like me. I want to change their minds.”

greg.braxton@latimes.com


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