One second, he was laughing at his sergeant's jokes.
Then, in his own words, "Boom." Everything in J.R. Martinez's life changed April 5, 2003. While in Iraq with the U.S. Army, the vehicle he was driving hit a land mine, and the explosion threw three people out of the truck riding with Martinez. He was trapped inside, fully conscious and almost certain his life would end that day.
His dreams, visions and goals in life were gone in that moment, Martinez told the crowd at the United Church of Christ's National Youth Event in West Lafayette, Ind.
Martinez spoke to a capacity crowd of more than 2,500 at Thursday morning's plenary, detailing his journey of survival and recovery from his injuries, and how he transitions "imagining" to "happening."
"Two words you should always have in your pocket: Adapt, and overcome," said Martinez, who later in the afternoon led a one-hour workshop titled "Paying it Forward."
Earlier in the plenary, the Rev. Jim Moos, executive minister of the UCC's Wider Church Ministries, welcomed international guests to the stage, and recognized NYE attendees from Germany and France.
Martinez told the morning crowd about the power children have to impact those around them, then outlined how his experience helped him realize a new purpose in life by positively influencing others. It wasn't an easy road at all for Martinez, now 29 and a celebrity after countless interviews with national media, appearances on the soap opera All My Children and ABC's Dancing With the Stars.
Like anyone dealing with grief, he sought an explanation to how one second you’re laughing with your friends, and the next, boom.
His faith helped guide him.
"Something I learned about faith is that in this moment right now, it might not make complete sense," he said. "If you stick to the path [God has] laid before you, over time you'll get that answer to that question 'Why?'"
Three girls from Millburn UCC in Lake Villa, Ill., said Martinez's keynote was emotional.
Sarah Ende said she enjoyed how Martinez said, "If you're told you have a disability, I tell you to diss the 'dis,' and you have an ability."
Yolanda Medina related to his recovery because of her rehab from back surgery. "I was in the hospital for two weeks, unable to shower [on my own] or sit up," she said. "It was personal for me."
Martinez's optimistic attitude resonated with Alyssa Dragin. "It’s cool how he’s been through everything and is still positive," she said.
In the chaos of the explosion nearly a decade ago, there was a brief calm where Martinez’s sister, whom he had never met, but looking older than in photos he saw of her, appeared and told him, "You’ll be OK … Mom needs you."
"And she went away," Martinez said, "and all of a sudden I was pulled out of the truck."
Martinez didn't know the most painful part of his burn recovery in San Antonio was showering, as Mike the Nurse –– the 6-foot-5 male with facial hair instead of the attractive female he imagined –– bathed him daily. "It doesn't matter the amount of medication they give you. You're still going to feel it, you're still going to scream, you're still going to yell," Martinez said. "And I went through this pain for about a week."
Shortly after that, Martinez asked to see his face and body. He became angry. "Why? Why do I look like this … What's the purpose of me looking like this?" Martinez said.
His mother told him that the people in his life would be in his life for who he was as a person. "There was something very sharp about those words," Martinez said. Seven months later, Martinez learned his new purpose when he spoke to a reclusive burn patient about what had happened and witnessed how he positively impacted the patient's life. He visited other patients, became involved in charity work and started touring the country as a motivational speaker.
"You have to believe there's a higher power. He's with you. He's with you 100 percent," Martinez said. "I believed in the path God laid out for me. I believe he actually chose this road for me and he's given me the tools to fix whatever’s wrong in my vehicle and get it back running on the road again."
In his workshop session, Martinez explained he was part of a greater good with the Army; his job allowed other people to do their jobs, which allowed other people to do their jobs. That satisfaction was gone in the aftermath of his injuries, but he regained it by helping others.
"I have the energy to do what I do because I enjoy being amongst you," Martinez said. "There’s so many different ways to have a lasting impact on someone’s life … We all have something to offer somebody."