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Discover the joy of helping others

By J.R. Martinez, Special to CNN
  • J.R. Martinez was severely burned while serving as a soldier in Iraq at 19
  • During recovery, he helped another young man in the same situation, which changed his life
  • People don't understand that the feeling of helping others is "what's in it for them"
  • To start helping others, do what you do best, make them feel appreciated, Martinez says

Editor's note: Jose Rene Martinez was severely burned while serving in Iraq in 2003. He is a motivational speaker and plays combat veteran Brot Monroe in ABC's "All My Children." He is also a spokesman for CNN Hero Dan Wallrath's organization, Operation Finally Home. "CNN Heroes: An All-Star Tribute" replays on CNN International on Christmas Eve at 1000, 1800 and 2300 GMT and on CNN/US on Christmas Day at 6 p.m. ET.

(CNN) -- This world is a busy place with billions of people and billions of things to achieve and experience. It's easy to live a lifetime without knowing the feeling of helping others.

But can you really blame people for making a way for themselves and not others? That's the message you get from birth: "Go after your dreams and don't let anything or anyone keep you from it."

I hear people ask: "What's in it for me?" or "Why should I help you, or them?" Could it be that they were never taught the importance of helping others or know how much they could gain from it themselves?

For me it wasn't someone, but more something, that made me realize the importance of helping others. It was simply visiting a place that some have never visited before -- and fighting for my life.

After sustaining burn injuries while serving in the Army in Iraq in 2003 at 19 years old, I asked myself a notebook full of questions. The main one was: "Why did this happen to me, and what am I going to do with it?"

As I carried on with my recovery, I waited for that answer. About six months after I was burned, I was asked to visit a young man in the same position as me. He was in the early stages of his recovery and hadn't been as physically injured as I was.

Growing up, I wasn't as connected to helping other people because too much was catching my attention, typical teenage things like football and girls. Needless to say, walking into that young man's room when I was 20 and visiting him gave me more than any other experience ever gave me.

It opened my eyes to a true purpose. I learned that I was able to have an impact on others and help them avoid the difficulties and challenges I faced in order to learn the many things I have learned.

I do not regret what happened to me on April 5, 2003, because it has brought me to a special place and has given me so much from which to grow. I know I have so much more to experience and learn. I am living the America Dream, and that is being able to dream and make it a reality.

Others do not have this opportunity because of a disruptive childhood, abusive relationships or limited resources. I went from fighting for my life to helping inspire others to fight for their own. I have had the honor of sharing my own life experiences with audiences throughout the world, and it has been a whirlwind. However, being able to hear others' stories and meet people who share the name "Hero" with me is even more amazing.

I had the unbelievable honor to meet great people over the years, and most recently, at the CNN Hero Awards show in Los Angeles. I attended the show to support my friend Dan Wallrath, founder of Operation Finally Home, which provides custom-made homes to wounded and disabled veterans and the widows of the fallen in an effort to get their lives back on track and become productive members of their communities.

He is a hero to many people. He didn't know much about the troops, but he knew how to build homes and wanted to give the troops what had been given to him and his family: hope, life, respect, acknowledgement and opportunity.

Witnessing him being honored and also meeting nine other heroes that night motivated me to continue the fight to give to others.

So, ask yourself this question: Will you be someone's hero? If you reply yes, but don't know where to start, do as my friend Paul Rieckhoff, the executive director and founder of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, suggests. "Instead of asking the question, 'What can I can do?' The real question is, 'What do you do best?' "

The more heroes we have, the better off our world will be. All of us can have an unimaginable effect on one person with the simple concept of making him or her feel cared for, appreciated and that they matter. Most important, you will learn far more than you ever expected, and that is what's in it for you.

The opinions in this commentary are solely those of J.R. Martinez.