Dancing With the Stars

J.R. Martinez talks war wounds: Humor helps

Oct. 13, 2011 at 11:22 AM ET

Kevin Winter / NBC via Getty Images /
J.R. Martinez reaches out to Zooey Deschanel on Wednesday night's "Tonight Show."

The path that led J.R. Martinez from soldier to actor to “Dancing With the Stars” hasn’t been an easy one. On Wednesday night’s “Tonight Show With Jay Leno,” the ballroom hopeful discussed his painful past and explained how he learned to cope. 

“In March, 2003 I deployed to Iraq at 19 years old, and you know, there’s no way you can actually prepare for war — no video game, nothing out there on the market can prepare you for that,” Martinez recalled. “So, I was still kind of taking everything in. But on April 5 of 2003, I was driving a Humvee through a city called Karbala with three other soldiers when my front left tire went over a land mine. I was trapped inside the truck, and from the actual explosion, it detonated everything we had inside the vehicle — we were carrying ammo, our personal gear, fuel, cause when you left the camp, you took everything. You never knew if you were going to come back.”

With severe burns covering over 40 percent of his body and the loss of his left ear, the accident changed Martinez’s life in an instant. Of course, healing from those wounds took much longer and involved more than just medical concerns.

“It was 2 and a half years (and) 33 surgeries,” he said. “It was tough, like I said, at 19 years old, coming out of a coma and seeing yourself for the first time, and thinking to myself, ‘How am I ever going to get a beautiful girl?’”

As he said that last line, “Dancing’s” smooth mover put his arm around “New Girl” star Zooey Deschanel, who was seated on the sofa next to him.

One of the ways Martinez learned to get the girl and the attention of the general public was to use humor to ease into social situations.

“We live in a world where it’s based on looks,” he said. “One thing that I’ve learned is that humor plays a big role, because a lot of people aren’t accustomed to seeing somebody who’s disfigured, so in order for them to be comfortable with looking at me and talking to me, I figure, use humor.”

The soap star then recounted one of his favorite laugh-getters.

“I went into a place where you get your ears pierced,” he told Leno. “I actually told the young girl — she was standing on my good side — and I said to her, ‘I want to get my left ear pierced.’ She’s like, ‘Cool. No problem. I’ll set everything up. Go sit in the chair.' I sat down in the chair and she came up, and she was kind of getting everything prepared and she got close and she said, ‘But you don’t have an ear!’ And instead of leaving it right there, I said, ‘What do you mean? When I came in I had one.”

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