FORT SAM HOUSTON, Texas -- Jose Martinez was an open and friendly guy before he joined the Army a year ago, and he's still that way even after being trapped for 20 minutes in a fiery ammunition truck in Iraq.
The experience left Martinez, a 20-year-old from Dalton, Ga., with disfiguring burns on his face, head, arms and legs. He's been in surgery more than two dozen times since early April, and there are more to come.
"One moment I was laughing and having a great time," he recalled of that night in the Iraqi desert near Nasiriyah, "and the next moment, I was in a great deal of pain and my life changed drastically."
But Spc. Martinez soldiers on with a smile. When he's not doing his outpatient therapy at Brooke Army Medical Center, he can usually be found cheering up other burn victims at the hospital, many of them with injuries far less severe than his own.
"I joke around with them and they joke around with me," he said. "Sometimes they want to talk about the bad things, but most of the time they talk about the pranks and jokes and fun things they did to make time (in Iraq) go by."
Martinez became a one-man pep squad several months ago, when nurses in BAMC's world-renowned burn ward asked him to speak to some depressed patients who were refusing to do their physical therapy. His words helped, and he's been volunteering ever since.
"I give them my point of view and tell them how I got through it," he said. "When they see me and see that my life isn't ended, they say, 'I'm not going to let this carry me down."'
His outlook has also made him a favorite among the burn unit's staff.
"He's one of the bravest individuals I've known," said nurse Mary Walker, grabbing up Martinez in a bear hug. "He's had multiple surgeries, multiple heartaches, multiple setbacks, and he still has a smile."
One day last week Martinez - wearing an Orlando Magic ballcap backward and his dogtags hanging out over a black T-shirt - strolled into Spc. Aaron Coates' recovery room and started by telling him the story of April 5.
Martinez, assigned to the 101st Airborne Division, was driving the last vehicle in a 90-vehicle convoy heading for Baghdad to help secure the airport there.
While swinging around the city of Nasiriyah, Martinez's Humvee hit an anti-tank mine strong enough to throw it 25 feet into the air. The three others in the vehicle were tossed clear by the impact, but Martinez got pinned when heavy boxes of ammo fell on top of him.
"I couldn't see anything," he said. "I just remember screaming at the top of my lungs for somebody to get me out of here."
Coates, 24, from Visalia, Calif., recognized the desperation.
On Aug. 30, a rocket-powered grenade hit the Humvee he was driving near the northern Iraq city of Kirkuk. The vehicle, carrying 1,000 gallons of jet fuel, was essentially folded in half by the explosion, trapping Coates.
He suffered extensive third-degree burns on his arms, and four fingers on his right hand had to be amputated at the first knuckle. The toxic smoke he breathed while trapped damaged his lungs so badly that he had to spend a month on a ventilator. He has had six operations on his eyes.
The two soldiers compared notes about Iraq, about their bad-luck circumstances, about how much it hurts to have skin taken from other parts of the body to cover their burns. They laughed and cussed a little
"I'm going to live my life like this never happened," Martinez told Coates. "This is the way you've got to look at it. ... It's all cool, everything's going to be fine."
As it turned out, Coates shared a lot of Martinez's optimism, though he said just having a visitor who knows what he's going through lifted his spirits.
"I'm happy every day I'm able to survive," said Coates, a member of the Italy-based 173rd Airborne Brigade. "I didn't see the point in being sad about it. Nothing I can do can change it."
Martinez also spreads his gospel to non-soldiers being treated at BAMC.
He dropped to see Nicholas Tebbs, an 18-year-old from San Antonio burned in September when he accidentally lit a match in a propane-filled cabin.
"It's nice to talk to people that have gone through what I'm going through," Tebbs said. "You know you're not the only one."
They swapped stories and on the way out Martinez told Tebbs that soon he would be fitted for a body suit to compress the skins on his wounds.
"They help you a lot, man," he said. "You don't want no scars."
His work done, Martinez takes a chair at the nurses' station for a few minutes of rest. He's still smiling.
"I wake up every morning, look at myself and say, 'Another day with the burns,"' he said. "But everything is going to be great."
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