April 25th, 2012
03:03 PM ET

Latino soldier to fellow troops: 'Take the warrior mask off...get help'

Editor's note: Overseas, they fight for freedom. In America, they fight for jobs. “Voters In America: Vets Wanted?” is the first part of CNN In America's documentary series on American voters. J.R. Martinez narrates the documentary re-airing May 19th at 8 p.m. ET on CNN.

By Sonya Hamasaki, CNN

Los Angeles (CNN) - When Army Master Sergeant Mike Martinez arrived in Saudi Arabia for his first assignment 22 years ago, he knew his experience in the infantry would make him “real tough, tough like nails.” But little did he know back then just how much those words would resonate now, in his new role as a voice for the invisible wounds of war.

Martinez, 42, shared his story in the USO’s first Invisible Wounds public service announcement to address post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injuries - the masked wounds encountered by many of the 300,000 troops returning home. He’s on a mission to educate Latino troops, in particular, whom he says are likely to feel a cultural stigma surrounding mental health treatment.

“I tell my Hispanic brothers that are still serving, don’t let pride get in the way," Martinez said. "Pride’s going to kill you. Take that warrior mask off and if you need to, get help. Get it in the beginning stages, and not later.”

Even veterans seeking help might not be getting a quick response from those who would care for them, according to an report released by the U.S. Office of Veterans Affairs this week. While the number of former service members seeking mental health care increased by 39% from 2005 to 2010, according to the Veterans Health Administration, the agency hasn't been meetings its goals to evaluate them within 24 hours and begin treatment within two weeks.

Although the Veterans Health Administration's 2011 performance report said 95% of first-time patients received a mental health evaluation within 14 days, it counted the number of days after a scheduled appointment; meanwhile, patients sometimes waited weeks or months for an evaluation appointment.

Staff vacancies might affect the health administration's ability to meet timeliness goals, the report said, although the Veterans Health Administration has increased its mental health staff by 46% from 2005 to 2010. Veterans Affairs announced last week it would hire about 2,000 new mental health professionals to help with the increased demand for services from soldiers like Martinez.

In 2007, during his first tour in Iraq, Martinez’s battalion was hit by an explosive while they were driving through Mosul.

“I couldn’t feel the left side of my face,” he said. “I was pinned with my first purple heart, and my Command Sergeant Major said ‘Hey, we can send you to the rear.’ I said ‘No sir, I can still fight.' And so I chose to stay and fight…but I knew something was wrong.”

He continued to fight in Iraq for two more years, until a bomb split his vehicle in half. This time, the impact nearly killed him.

“I remember calling my wife, saying I didn’t think I was going to make it," he said. "I told her it’s been a good ride, take care of the boys…and I was out.”

When he returned to the United States, he came face to face with an even bigger, personal battle.

“I remember my boys saying, ‘Welcome home.’ I could see them but I couldn’t feel. That’s because of PTSD and traumatic brain injury. I just felt cold,” Martinez said.

Years of rehabilitation followed, and it continues today. But despite the physical drawbacks like headaches, dizziness and delayed speech, Martinez moves forward with service off the battlefield. He’s medically retired, and dedicates himself to helping his Latino “brothers” who might be reluctant to seek treatment.

"When you start getting educated and understand there’s something wrong, get help," he said. "I’m tired of seeing family members who say ‘I don’t have time.’ It takes five minutes.”

The USO’s new PSA campaign on invisible wounds was a platform for Martinez to share his story and his message, he said.

“We were honored to help him when he came off the battlefield,” USO spokesman Frank Thorp said. “Over a period of time, we got to know him well…and it sounded like he wanted to talk about it.”

Talking about his injuries has helped Martinez embrace the healing process, he said, and brought him closer to his fellow soldiers.

“We understand each other. We just want to get better and get back to normal life," he said. "The goal for all of us is just to find peace.”

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Filed under: Documentaries • Health • How we live • Latino in America • Veterans
soundoff (37 Responses)
  1. road bike

    Hey there, You have done an excellent job. I will definitely digg it and personally suggest to my friends. I am sure they'll be benefited from this site.

    November 5, 2012 at 10:05 am | Report abuse |
  2. clarity6

    Good job. Wish more veterans would do the same.

    June 6, 2012 at 11:45 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Serving

    i am currently serving and i am mexican so why do all the people who have not served and mostlikely do not have any one who does feel like they can say what ever they want? oh yea freedom of speech which not just white soldiers fight for but what every race in the US military fight for so please respect what the man has to say no one cares about your racist comments.

    June 5, 2012 at 4:54 pm | Report abuse |
  4. MannyHM

    The message of Sgt. Martinez is for every veteran. The focus on Latinos is from his own personal experience being one that Latinos tend to wear a 'thicker' warrior mask than others in hiding the wounds in the psyche. This may not be true of course. I've seen PTSD because I worked in the VA for 3 decades. I still believe that the Vietnam veterans who suffered just as much even suffered more because when they came home, they were not welcomed and appreciated as heroes.
    Thank you Sgt. Martinez. I hope this article prompts veterans to seek help they need.

    June 5, 2012 at 1:15 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Dick Hertz

    Is this for real? Screw him and the Latino Soldiers. Where's the story where a White Soldier speaks to Whites who are serving. If you want to be American then act like it. We're supposed to be the same here. If you want to strictly be Latino then hit the road. I served. To my fellow White Veterans. I tell you this. Guns and ammo. Buy what you can. While you can. While you can still do it speaking English. When's European American Month?

    May 30, 2012 at 10:40 am | Report abuse |
  6. cindysong

    Family only hope their son come back home in safe with health body , all the soldiers should be highly respected since they use their own life to protect their nation. they are heros to us. no matter they pick stay in army or go home , they are heros of the nations. Their solution is their right and being repsected

    May 18, 2012 at 5:49 am | Report abuse |
  7. Hany Adrian Dragan


    May 17, 2012 at 4:41 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Patrick

    "He’s on a mission to educate Latino troops, in particular, whom he says are likely to feel a cultural stigma surrounding mental health treatment."

    Then maybe the solution is for these 'Latino troops' to adopt American culture. But no, that won't work, since the cultural stigma is universal. So why target just one demographic in this 'mission' ?

    May 14, 2012 at 1:46 pm | Report abuse |
    • 1twinsfan

      What a short-sighted comment. Most Latinos in the military are American.

      May 14, 2012 at 3:34 pm | Report abuse |
    • Grindstone

      Obviously spoken by somebody who never served a day in their life.

      May 14, 2012 at 9:44 pm | Report abuse |
    • mohammad

      Since when did America have a culture. There is no such thing as American food. No such thing as American race. America is the melting-pot of other cultures.

      May 17, 2012 at 2:59 pm | Report abuse |
      • Culture

        You're right America has no 10000 yr old roots. The melting pot killed them off.

        May 17, 2012 at 4:51 pm | Report abuse |
      • Salero21

        Wrong! There is absolutely such a thing as american-food is know and called by it's other name: JUNK FOOD!

        May 17, 2012 at 6:09 pm | Report abuse |
      • Elreyjones

        American culture is the greatest on Earth. It has been defined and is second to none. One thing is for sure – islam is and never will be part of Americana. Islam is a murderous backwards religion and Americans come together agreeing with that. THey don't want the Sunni, Shiite, or Nation of Islam in America. None are American. Hispanics add much to Americana as do other cultures but islam adds nothing.

        June 2, 2012 at 6:28 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Scot

    I am one of those that suffer, but sad that a Master Sergeant of all ranks would focus on the Latino's only. Who ever says that race doesn't take care of race in the military is blind. I am not that way, I treat everyone equally. Real Heros don't slam the football, real Heros don't ride the coat tails of the Military. They do their job, take care of each other regardless of race. Then come home and put the pieces back together the best we can. Get off your soap box and go actually get involved and help out like the countless volunteers that are there everyday with those that really need help. Talking is one thing, action is another.

    May 12, 2012 at 5:42 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Emanuel

    Hands down, all of our veterans deserve better. Every time I talk with any veteran they don't wanna hear anything about the army or even wanna talk about it. That says a lot and we need to find out the problem and fix it.

    May 12, 2012 at 2:22 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Bribarian


    May 11, 2012 at 5:35 pm | Report abuse |
  12. join

    If anybody has some time look up NFJP or R at the end they has to do with workers that migrate

    May 9, 2012 at 1:51 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Tori

    As a Mexican American ...or as I am referred to here in the good ole U.S of A... 'mexican' LOL. I fail to see where the focus on just Latino troops is of any benefit to troops 'overall'. Perhaps Martinez experienced some alienation from fellow troops and this is merely the result.

    May 9, 2012 at 10:41 am | Report abuse |
  14. Alex

    There is no help for you unless you help yourselves. Get a job! Any job! That'll be a good start in this economy.

    May 7, 2012 at 11:49 am | Report abuse |
    • join

      yes i knew a person that worked for a farmer for 14 years and then lost his job to a migration workers nothing wrong with that but at least give the guy some time to get a another job before they just fire him.

      May 9, 2012 at 1:50 pm | Report abuse |
      • Nostradamus

        Why blame Migration workers? Blame the farmer!!!!

        May 31, 2012 at 8:32 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Glenn

    I remember growing up in the sixties when issue of mental health were taboo and a personal deficiency. We have moved a long way but it makes me wonder how many have suffered in silence in previous decades.

    April 29, 2012 at 11:35 pm | Report abuse |
    • join

      now i know their is minority discrimination

      May 6, 2012 at 1:48 am | Report abuse |
  16. Wake up

    All of you soldiers need to take the warrior masks off and stop fighting these useless wars out in the middle east.
    Have you found any of those WMD's in Iraq?
    What are we still doing in Afghanistan if Osama is dead?
    Time to come home, there are bigger problems to solve here in the US like protect our own borders before we go trying to protect and solve other countries problems.
    I feel more threatened by the out of control border violence from the cartels than from somebody in the middle east.

    April 29, 2012 at 11:07 pm | Report abuse |
    • doughnuts

      Don't tell the soldiers, tell the politicians that tell them where to go.

      May 9, 2012 at 9:19 am | Report abuse |
      • join

        I lost three years of my life because of this. my job my friends and money cant help that.

        May 9, 2012 at 12:34 pm | Report abuse |
  17. firemedic2274

    Politicians get excellent taxpayer funded healthcare so they can get whatever care they need, yet veterans have to wait and jump through hoops for care that's difficult for them personally to seek. Since when does a politicians service rival that of a combat veteran. Yet our politicians cut these services at will. Our gov't jumps into any conflict because elite corporations profit off them. Meanwhile soldiers are deployed repeatedly for several years, and sacrifice so much more than any "public servant" I've ever heard off. Like the joke goes: What do you call a hundred politicians at the bottom of Chesapeake Bay? A good start!

    April 28, 2012 at 3:31 pm | Report abuse |
  18. Intrepid

    It is sad that the Obama administration can send immediate Billions to False Allies such as Pakistan but will not inject more needed funds into the well being of our warriors that are returning daily.

    April 27, 2012 at 10:24 pm | Report abuse |
    • hoho57

      or like bush who sent a millions troop to die at war

      April 29, 2012 at 8:42 am | Report abuse |
      • Bush Rules

        million's died from the wars when Bush was in office? LOL. boy your numbers are off.

        May 2, 2012 at 9:15 am | Report abuse |
  19. US Solider

    I truly believe all soliders need to remove the mask.. We are all brothers regardless of ethnicity....Thats how I understood it in the core.

    April 26, 2012 at 10:47 pm | Report abuse |
  20. YMB in Arizona

    These warriors need our help and respect. We owe these men and women.

    April 26, 2012 at 2:15 pm | Report abuse |
  21. Palmer

    Well said Sergeant Martinez. Every since I was 14, I knew that I would join the military. Everyone knew I was "tough" enough. With a story similar to yours, I did not ask for help until it was almost too late. God bless you and keep looking after yourself.

    April 26, 2012 at 2:11 pm | Report abuse |
  22. Gary

    Semper Fidelis!!! We must first fire most of the civilian workers that collect a paycheck at the VA hospitals and hire only Veterans. Living in Puerto Rico and dealing with the lack of compassion and professionalism from the workers has only made me angry at the system. Most young troops will just give up and never return because of pride. It took me over 12 years to realize that I need assistance and have just started my paper work. We do need more advocates passing this knowledge on to assist all Vets. that have sacrificed their lives for this nation.

    April 25, 2012 at 7:38 pm | Report abuse |
    • news

      im on your side....vnvet.

      June 6, 2012 at 7:17 am | Report abuse |
  23. ma & pa

    God help all of us with these injuries.

    April 25, 2012 at 5:40 pm | Report abuse |