04/04/2013 12:44 EDT | Updated 06/04/2013 05:12 EDT

Star Power: What This 29-Year-Old Army Vet Would Do to Stop Violence

Star Power: A six-pack of questions for celebs making a difference.

Craig and Marc Kielburger, founders of Free The Children and Me to We, check in with some of their favourite actors, singers and activists to find out how they are changing the world.

U.S. Army infantryman J.R. Martinez was only 19 when he was deployed to Iraq, in 2003. Less than a month into his tour of duty with the elite 101st Airborne, his Humvee hit a roadside bomb. The vehicle was thrown into the air, ejecting three other soldiers. Martinez, trapped inside, was engulfed in flames. The skin on his face, arms and hands burned away.

It was more than a moment that changed everything, Martinez told us. It was the nearly three years he spent in recovery -- undergoing more than 30 surgeries -- that tested his attitude, changed his definition of service and set the course for the rest of his life. His story just gets more and more incredible.

Martinez has done the talk show circuit, secured a recurring role on the daytime drama All My Children and a stint on reality television. He and professional ballroom dancer Karina Smirnoff won season 13 of Dancing with the Stars.

As a motivational speaker, Martinez has shared his story with other burn patients, army vets, corporate groups and, last week, 15,000 young volunteers at We Day Seattle.

There, the 29-year-old army vet told us about his own hero, and why, if he had a superpower, he'd end violence and war around the world.


(Photo - Dana Nalbandian - Getty Images)

We're all about living me to we: making choices that positively impact the world, instead of just ourselves. Describe the moment you decided you wanted to give back.

It was about six months after I was injured, going through the day-to-day therapy and doctors, when I was asked to visit another patient who was having a hard time. And I realized I had a positive effect on that patient. At that moment I realized I could serve. Coming from the military, it's all about service. I thought I could serve in a completely different capacity -- I'm not going to be able to be in the military anymore -- now it's sharing my story.

Helping somebody can just mean sharing and talking and listening. Listening is such an important thing, especially in our world where technology has taken over and we have a tendency at times to be unconnected to people. I just sat down with that guy and said, 'I'm 19, this is what happened to me, this is what I experienced. It did get better, and it will get better for you.' That was it. It was no big secret.

You've got fans that look to you as a role model; who is your hero?

It's not necessarily a superstar to the rest of the world, but she's a superstar to me. My mom has been through a lot in her life. As a young boy being raised by a single mother, her strength was just amazing to me. I have seen her adapt and overcome and find ways to smile and stay strong. Those things have been really inspiring to me.

On any given day, we know that girls' education, world hunger and global warming are some of the social issues facing our world. What's the biggest issue to you?

I think all of those initiatives are very important in their own way. My family is from Central America, El Salvador. And I remember going over there for the first time when I was six, and my cousins, my grandma, not having clean water at times. I know what it's like not to live in the United States.

But it's hard to say what's most important to me. Giving girls the opportunity to realize that they can do as much as any other man, empowering kids to realize they can make a difference even from very young. It's almost like an investment. I invest in kids. Me being 29, if I'm helping a 10-year-old kid, when I'm old and grey, these kids are going to be in charge -- not only of this country, but also of this world.

If you could have a socially conscious superpower and change one thing about the world, what would it be?

I would try to end violence. That is one thing that upsets me, whether it's violence from country to country or community to community or state to state. That is something that depresses me, especially because a lot of it can be avoided. I don't think we need to go to those places.

Nobody wins from any kind of violence or any kind of war. People constantly lose, whether it's the people fighting or the people that love them. If I had a superpower, when people were getting ready to duke it out I'd sprinkle some dust and they'd be like, 'Alright, we're okay.'

People have a tendency to think that vets and military personnel, we love to fight--that's not necessarily the case.

If people from the future were talking about you, what would you want them to say?

I want people to know that the journey that I've been on was unpredicted -- not planned. I just believed in myself. I realized that everything I'd been through prior to that moment had prepared me for that moment. I found ways to beat all the obstacles and all the adversity. And that I was a part of change. And that I cared. It wasn't just a job to me; it was something I loved to do.

I think about that now, having an 11-month old daughter, I think about one day -- her being proud of what her father does.

We work with so many young people. Looking back, what advice would you give your high-school self?

So many things! I would sit myself down and give myself a full-on, 45-minute motivational speech. But knowing my high-school self I don't know how much I would listen.

All jokes aside, the biggest thing I'd tell myself is the importance of academics, of constantly learning in school. Kids in school think, 'I'm never going to use this' because they think they know everything -- and I thought I did too. I would tell myself: study, work hard, and get good grades. Because all I thought about was sports. I would have given myself more options when I graduated, versus just joining the military, which wasn't a bad option. But I could have had more options. It's a beautiful thing in life to have options.

Craig and Marc Kielburger are founders of international charity and educational partner, Free The Children. Its youth empowerment event, We Day, is in eight cities across Canada this year, inspiring more than 100,000 attendees. For more information, visit