New York – It’s been 12 years since U.S. Army veteran J.R. Martinez returned from Iraq with severe burns to more than 34 percent of his body after his Humvee hit a roadside bomb.
The Louisiana native from Salvadoran descent spent more than two years at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, Texas, recovering from the dozens of different surgeries he underwent there, including skin grafts and cosmetic surgery.
In all, Martinez has undergone 34 surgeries since his injury on that fateful April morning in 2003. He was 20 years old.
Martinez is now fully recovered and has made it a point to share his story. It all started, he recalls, when during his recovery a nurse asked him to speak to a burn patient, who had just seen his body for the first time. That’s when he realized his motivational power and decided to use it to help others.
In the meantime, he also became a celebrity when a three-month role in All My Children developed into a three year role. More recently, he was crowned in the celebrity show Dancing with the Stars.
But first and foremost, Martinez is devoted to spreading his message of resilience and optimism. He said he is particularly concerned with the rising number of suicides among the vets.
“There are 22 veterans committing suicide every day. We’re saving them from that battlefield, from that war, but we are not saving them when they come here,” Martinez told Fox News Latino.
“The cost of war, in a lot of cases, is life -- that’s the ultimate sacrifice,” he added. “But we’re not just losing them in the battlefield; we’re losing them in our backyard. We’re losing them here in New York City; we’re losing them all around the country.”
In an effort to educate about the struggles many U.S. veterans go through, Martinez teamed up with Emmy Award-winning director Ric Burns for a new PBS documentary, “Debt of Honor: Disabled Veterans in American History.” It will premiere Tuesday night at 9 p.m., on the eve of Veterans Day
“It’s starting a dialogue that unfortunately doesn’t exist too often outside of Veterans’ Day, Memorial Day, Fourth of July,” he said. “It’s creating that dialogue. Being a veteran myself and being one of the voices, you speak out, you speak out, you speak out –- to some people it just doesn’t catch.”
The hour-long documentary seeks to examine the country’s history of helping its veterans, from the Revolutionary War to the most recent wars in the Middle East, taking an unflinching look at the reality of war and the human costs to soldiers.
“It lets people understand and know what we face, what difficulties we do face as veterans when we come back home … and hopefully educate them on how to get involved,” Martinez said. “Having been a veteran for 12 years, I’ve learned that there are a lot of similarities between the past conflicts and the current ones and more than likely the future ones.”
He continued: “I’ve come to understand with this documentary that my injury, 40 years ago, 50 years ago, I wouldn’t have survived, hell, I wouldn’t have survived 20 years ago,” he said.
“I wouldn’t have made it home. And now, medicine has improved so much, greatly to a point now that veterans are actually coming home with these wounds – they are not just physical wounds, they’re internal, metal wounds, they’re emotional wounds.”
Martinez said that as a society, more needs to be done to encourage veterans and their families to talk about what they are going through and give them a safety net in the country they fought to defend.
Lucia I. Suarez Sang is a Reporter for FoxNews.com.
Follow her on Twitter @luciasuarezsang