updated 8/26/2004 10:34:21 AM ET 2004-08-26T14:34:21

Guests: Chris Barron, Chrissy Gephardt, Drew Pinsky, Tony Perkins, Jose Martinez, Ronnie McClurg, Aaron Ward

DEBORAH NORVILLE, ANCHOR:  The gay issue.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DICK CHENEY, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  People ought to be free to enter into any kind of relationship they want to.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

NORVILLE:  As the father of a gay daughter, is the president‘s stand on gay marriage at odds with that of his boss.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  Our nation must enact a constitutional amendment to protect marriage in America.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

NORVILLE:  Tonight, when political platforms clash with personal views.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

CHENEY:  Freedom means freedom for everyone.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

NORVILLE:  A soldier‘s story.  Twenty-one year old J.R. Martinez joined the Army to pay for a college education, and it nearly costs him his life.  While serving in Iraq with the elite 101st Airborne, his Humvee struck a land mine.  Private 1st Class Martinez suffered severe burns over 30 percent of his body.  But he didn‘t just survive, he‘s flourishing. 

Battered, but not beaten.  This former high school football star has since emerged as a one-man pep squad, a model of inspiration for fellow casualties of war and the folks back home.  Tonight, the remarkable story of private First Class J.R. Martinez in his hometown and mine, Dalton, Georgia. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Just saying hi to the people here, you know, these are the people that I love. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)        

ANNOUNCER:  From Studio 3K in Rockefeller Center, Deborah Norville.

NORVILLE:  And good evening, everybody.  On the eve of the Republican National Convention, Vice President Dick Cheney has touched off a firestorm with some startling new comments about gay marriage.  Speaking at a town hall meeting in Iowa, the vice president acknowledged publicly for the first time that one of his daughters is gay. 

First off tonight, we‘re going to let you listen to Vice President Cheney‘s comments in their entirety. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

CHENEY:  With respect to the question of gay marriage, Lynn and I have a gay daughter, so it‘s an issue that our family is very familiar with.  We have two daughters, and we have enormous pride in both of them.  They‘re both fine young women.  They do a superb job, frankly, of supporting us, and we were blessed with both our daughters. 

With respect to the question of relationships, my general view is that freedom means freedom for everyone.  People ought to be free to enter into any kind of relationship they want to.  The question that comes up with respect to the issue of marriage, is what kind of official sanction or approval is going to be granted by government, if you will, to particular relationships.  Historically, that‘s a relationship that‘s been handled by the states.  States have made that basic fundamental decision in terms of what defining what constitutes a marriage.  I made it clear four years ago when I ran and this question came up in the debate I had with Joe Lieberman, that my view was that that‘s appropriately a matter for the states to decide, that that‘s how it ought to best be handled. 

The president has, as a result of decisions that have been made in Massachusetts this year by judges, felt thee wanted to support a constitutional amendment to define—at the federal level to define what constitutes marriage, that I think his perception was that the courts, in effect, were beginning to change without allowing the people to be involved, without there being part of the political process, that the courts in that particular case, the state courts of Massachusetts were making the judgment or the decision for the entire country, and he disagreed with that. 

So the point we‘re at, at this point is he has come out in support of a federal constitutional amendment, and I don‘t think, while so far it hasn‘t had the votes to pass, most states have addressed this.  There is on the books the federal statute, Defense of Marriage Act passed in 1996, and to date, it has not been successfully challenged in the courts, and it may be sufficient to resolve the issue. 

But at this point, save my own preference, is as I‘ve stated, but the president makes basic policy for the administration, and he‘s made it clear that he does, in fact, support a constitutional amendment on this issue. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

NORVILLE:  This is such a hot-button issue, and we‘ve heard snippets of the vice president‘s statement.  We thought it important to air every bit of it, so all of you have a chance to hear exactly what the vice president said. 

And so now the question, what to do when politics hits so close to home and the professional position ends up clashing with the personal? 

Joining me tonight is Chris Barron, the political director of the Log Cabin Republicans.  Also tonight, Chrissy Gephardt, the daughter of Missouri Congressman Dick Gephardt.  She‘s an openly gay political activist.  With us tonight as well, radio talk show host Dr. Drew Pinsky, and Tony Perkins, who is the president of the Family Research Council. 

Chris, I want to start with you first.  It sort of looked like Dick Cheney was really between a rock and a hard place, between the professional obligations and the personal responsibility to his daughter. 

CHRISSY GEPHARDT, GAY AND LESBIAN VICTORY FUND:  He absolutely is.  I think that you can tell that, you know, Dick Cheney is torn.  I mean, he knows the personal human side of it.  He has a gay daughter who he loves very much and he‘s caught in trying to also work with the president, and you can clearly tell that he‘s very conflicted, you know, but I have issue, though, with the fact that Dick Cheney has not talked to the president more about this.  And in some ways he is silently agreeing with the president in many ways.  I mean, even though...

NORVILLE:  You think as a father, he has an obligation to take it up with his boss? 

GEPHARDT:  Absolutely.  I think that that he understands this issue better than anyone.  I mean, he has a gay daughter.  And I think that it‘s his responsibility to bring this up with President Bush.  I mean, President Bush, I‘m sure, knows Mary Cheney, and it‘s still just shameful to me that he can still enshrine discrimination into the Constitution after knowing someone like Mary. 

NORVILLE:  Chris barren, your group is the Log Cabin Republicans are gay and lesbian Republicans, who don‘t necessarily appear of that particular plank in the GOP platform.  It seems to me this was more of an empathetic Dick Cheney than we‘ve gotten a glimpse of during this election season, or even a lot during this presidency. 

CHRIS BARRON, LOG CABIN REPUBLICANS:  Well, I think we saw, was we saw Vice President Cheney speaking not only as a vice president, but speaking as a father and a husband, and the words he spoke were exactly what he said in 2000.  And it‘s what we‘ve been saying for six months, why we should not have a discriminatory constitutional amendment. 

I think that he is right to agree with the president on this, and I wish the president was listening to Cheney here. 

NORVILLE:  But at the end of the day, he didn‘t disagree with the president; he said my own preference is as I stated, but the president makes basic policy.  At the end of the statement, he reeled back in and was back in the party tent. 

BARRON:  Well, that‘s the reality of also being the vice president.  And that‘s just simply the facts. 

NORVILLE:  But, Tony Perkins, in the process of making that statement, did Vice President Cheney go too far away from the party line, in your group‘s opinion, which is steadfastly behind President Bush in supporting this constitutional amendments? 

TONY PERKINS, FAMILY RESEARCH COUNCIL:  Well I think the vice president‘s comments were troubling, but I think the administration has given him some latitude, because it is a personal situation with him, having a lesbian daughter, and certainly, you know, he has the right, and I think he should be able to speak words that would be supportive of his daughter, but that can‘t affect public policy.  Personal circumstances should not dictate one‘s position on public policy.  The benefit of the society as a whole should dictate that.

NORVILLE:  And indeed today, the Republican Committee in charge of drafting the platform approved that plank, which is right behind the constitutional amendment which would ban gay marriage in this country.  That‘s something your group has been lobbying hard for, and you think it‘s something that can help win the election for George Bush.  Why? 

PERKINS:  Well, I think that it‘s more than about the election.  It‘s about the society as a whole.  It‘s about what‘s good for our society.  The social science shows very clearly that the best environment for children is to have a mother and a father, and to allow judges to impose same-sex marriage on states across this country, would deny children for the first time a mother or a father.  And so this is a about public policy.  Public policy has the power to shape our culture.

And so yes, this is an important issue.  It‘s an issue where we‘ve seen in Missouri and other states where 70-plus percent of the people are in favor of protecting being the institution of marriage. 

NORVILLE:  When you look at the polls, Chris Barron, and I don‘t want to debate the gay amendment issue, the gay marriage amendment issue, because we really want to talk about this conflict that Cheney had, but when you look at the polls, most people are opposed to this amendment. 

BARRON:  Absolutely.  I think that we‘ve seen how divisive this debate is.  As much as Tony would like this to be a winner for the president, we‘ve seen it not only dividing our party, not only dividing our families, our parties, but dividing our president and our vice president.  We ought to be talking about things that unite our country—winning the war on terror, fighting this war if Iraq.  We shouldn‘t be talking about divisive social issues. 

NORVILLE:  I want to follow-up on that in a second, but I want to also bring Drew Pinsky into our conversation. 

Drew, when you see Dick Cheney basically having to walk on both sides of the street, what is the impact that the vice president‘s statement likely had on his daughter, Mary, who has certainly not sought any notoriety for herself? 

DR. DREW PINSKY, ADDICTION SPECIALIST/RADIO HOST:  I think it has to be actually a positive thing, because here we, for the first time, are seeing a very important public figure talk genuinely and tenderly about what could be a rather embarrassing, as you all but mentioned, a divisive issue, so I found it very refreshing that finally we have politicians willing to be humans, and willing to be honest. 

Now I understand people are doubtful about the political motivation for being so open at this point in time, but the fact is I think it‘s refreshing, and I would think the daughter would think it‘s rather positive. 

I will say one thing, though, in his comments, he did not come out in favor of gay marriage; he came out in favor of states‘ rights, and so we really don‘t know what his position is on gay marriage and how he defines marriage.  He says anyone should be able to have a relationship with anyone whom they please, and in fact, that‘s a huge step forward for a vice president to come out and say that very publicly, in a very, as I said, sort of tender and empathetic way. 

NORVILLE:  But I wonder, and Tony, first, let‘s me follow that up with you—the Republican Party was always the party that sort of hands off, you know, let‘s don‘t give the government more control than it ought to have, and we are a federal system of government.  This is taking an issue that historically has been one regulated by the states and granting those powers, were this amendment to be passed, to the federal government. 

PERKINS:  Well, you‘re absolutely right.  The Republican Party is about preserving the rights of the state.  And as a former state legislator who was a part of authoring the Defense of Marriage Act in my home state, along with about 37 other states that have done the same, this is an issue of protecting what the states have already done.  Thirty-eight states—actually 34 states—have passed statutory defense of marriage acts.  Four states, now five, have actually passed constitutional amendments, and this is about preserving what they‘ve already done.  And by the way, that‘s the same number needed to ratify an amendment to the Constitution. 

We‘re talking about all the work that these state legislators have done can be overturned by an unelected federal judge.  And that‘s why we‘re calling for an amendment to protect the work the states have already done, to protect their rights that they‘ve exercised. 

NORVILLE:  Chrissy Gephardt, let me bring you in to this.  I mean, it was, what, 15, 20 years ago, there was the push to try to get the Equal Rights Amendment passed in this country, something that probably affected more people than the gay marriage amendment would effect. There‘s some estimated 20 million gay Americans, give or take a few million probably, in this country.  Does this have a snowball‘s chance?  Does it deserve to be a political issue at this level, in your opinion? 

GEPHARDT:  You know, it does not deserve to be political issue at this level.  This is simply a tool being used by George Bush and the Republican Party to energize the Religious Right and to energize his base. 

What president has enshrined discrimination in the Constitution of the United States?  The Constitution has been used to give people rights, not to take rights away.  And to me, it‘s simply abhorrent to me that a president would be running on this issue. 

And you know, we should be talking about the issues like jobs and health care, and the things that really matter to voters, and to me it‘s disgusting. 

NORVILLE:  We‘re going to take a short break.  When we come back, more with Dr. Pinsky, Chrissy Gephardt, Chris Barron and Tony Perkins in just a second.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BUSH: Today I call upon the Congress to promptly pass and to send to the states for ratification an amendment to our constitution defining and protecting marriage as a union of a man and woman, as husband and wife.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

CHENEY:  People ought to be free to enter into any kind of relationship they want to.  The question that comes up with respect to the issue of marriage is what kind of official sanction, or approval, is going to be granted by government, if you will, to particular relationships. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

NORVILLE:  That‘s Vice President Cheney yesterday talking about gay marriage. 

We‘re continuing our discussion with Chris Barron from the Log Cabin Republicans, Chrissy Gephardt, the daughter of Missouri Congressman Dick Gephardt.  Also with us tonight, radio talk show host Dr. Drew Pinsky, and Tony Perkins from the Family Research Council.

It may surprise you all to know that President George W. Bush was elected in the year 2000 with 25 percent of the gay vote in this country.  That‘s more than a million voters. 

Chris Barron, does George Bush have those same million voters with him this time around? 

BARRON:  Clearly his support for this discriminatory amendment has jeopardized the ability of this president to get any of those one million votes, and I think that it is sad that the president has walked away from the folks who elected him.  Sixty-thousand openly gay folks alone in Florida voted for this president. 

NORVILLE:  So you think that this is, given that everybody thinks there‘s 5 percent undecided, and it could be another squeaker in 2004, this could turn the tide for him? 

BARRON:  Look, re-election is about addition, not subtraction. 

NORVILLE:  Tony Perkins, you see it differently, and I wonder about the timing in this.  In February, the president announced his support for this amendment banning gay marriage.  I‘m guessing that the administration would have just as soon not had any further discussion this close to the Republican convention. 

PERKINS:  Well, I don‘t know, but I would say that for the president, and as far as the political calculation, I think this shows the president‘s true leadership, that he sees an issue that he feels deeply concerned about  and realizes this is an important issue to the country, that marriage is important, it‘s a cornerstone of the family, and so I think he waded into maybe what could be called a politically thorny issue, but I think that shows the type of leadership that he‘s provided to this country. 

And I think that when you look at—you refer to polls, I think if you look what has happened time and time again, as people have the opportunity to express themselves on the issue of should people of the same sex be able to marry, overwhelmingly people say no, and so I don‘t think that the president is outside the mainstream.  I think 70 percent-plus of Americans agree with him, that marriage should be between a man and a woman. 

NORVILLE:  But you know, when you start talking about a constitutional amendment, you know, there‘s always that trick about how you phrase the question.  If you talk about gay marriage and don‘t talk about the amendment, that‘s one thing.  When you talk about amending the Constitution, the numbers are a little bit different, and it comes down this way, that 48 percent favor, 46 percent oppose and 6 percent are unsure, when you talk about it being a constitutional amendment.  So people feel differently when you monkey with the Constitution. 

PERKINS:  Well, when you look at what they‘re doing to state constitutions, as we just saw in Missouri, where they amended that state constitution by 71 percent vote, and as people realize that all of that work to protect marriage in their state is at jeopardy at the hands of an elected judge activist judge, teaming up with 3 percent of the population.

NORVILLE:  You‘re talking now about the Massachusetts decision? 

PERKINS:  Well, not only the Massachusetts decision—those were state judges—but there‘s very real concern that a federal judge at some point in time.  And the vice president himself said, that right now DOMA is OK, and we feel like it‘s protected, but we don‘t know, and that‘s true. There may be a federal judge two months from now, two years from now overturn that Defense of Marriage Act, and then all of those state constitutions would be for naught, because they would—same-sex marriage would be imposed upon the states.

NORVILLE:  I want to go back to the question that we started with, and that being the fact that the vice president spoke publicly for the first time that his daughter was gay. 

Chrissy Gephardt, how would you Vice President Cheney on the father scale?  As a dad, how did he do in publicly acknowledging his daughter‘s sexual orientation? 

GEPHARDT:  You know, I have to say, I think he did a pretty good job.  I mean, I think he said, you know, we have a gay daughter who we‘re very proud of, it‘s an issue we‘re very familiar with. 

I mean, I think that one thing we have to keep in mind is that not only for gay and lesbian people do we have a coming-out process, but the families do as well.  Our parents have to have time to come out, and it‘s hard. 

I mean, I do think, though, that Dick Cheney should have come out a long time ago talking about the fact that he has a gay daughter, but I do think that it is...

NORVILLE:  But don‘t some parents at least have the right to come at their own speed too?  I mean, just as a gay or lesbian person has the right to go public with that at their own time, shouldn‘t the parent be afforded that same space? 

GEPHARDT:  Absolutely.  Absolutely.  I definitely agree.  And I don‘t know the Cheney story.  I don‘t know the situation.  I mean, we know that Mary Cheney had been working as an openly gay person before she joined her father‘s presidential campaign—or vice presidential campaign, for Coors Brewing Company, but you‘re absolutely right, there is time that is needed for families, but I still think that Dick Cheney could have come out well before he did. 

NORVILLE:  And let me turn now finally to you, Drew Pinsky, there are a lot of gay and lesbian Americans in this country, a lot of family members who are conflicted, and one sensed there was some conflict for Vice President Cheney.  Four years ago, Mrs. Cheney sort of took offense almost when she was questioned on a news program about her daughter being gay, and she sort of jumped on the media getting into the family‘s business.  This is a difficult issue for families as well, is it not? 

PINKSY:  Oh, Deborah, absolutely right.  You have framed this in precisely the proper manner, which is that the family needs a chance to come out as well.  And for this family, it‘s a public family, it took what it‘s took, but I think the fact that they have come out in the manner in which they did, it‘s going to be a landmark.  I think we will look back upon this as a very important experience, where acceptance, and tenderness and the reality of the human experience has moved forward a little bit and people do not stay hidden in ideological camps; they just accept one another as they are. 

NORVILLE:  And Chris Barron from the Log Cabin Republicans, who at one point couldn‘t get a seat at the table in the Republican Party, do you want to give us a final word on all of this? 

BARRON:  Sure.  The final word is that the party can‘t have it both ways.  We can‘t have the folks sitting there at the platform hearings today crafting an intolerant and mean-spirited platform, and then trying to put lipstick on the pig by sticking Rudy Giuliani and Arnold Schwarzenegger in primetime.  There‘s a battle for the heart and soul of this party, and I‘m confident that we‘re going to win.

NORVILLE:  How do you think it‘s going to play at the convention? 

BARRON:  I think the voices of intolerance are going to be pushed to the side so that the entire world gets a chance to see the voices of inclusion. 

NORVILLE:  Well, The party begins on Monday at Madison Square Garden, here in New York.

Chris Barron, thanks all of you for being with us. 

Chrissy Gephardt, our thanks to you.

Tony Perkins and Dr. Drew Pinsky, thanks all of you for being with us. 

GEPHARDT:  Thank you.

NORVILLE:  We‘ll be right back. 

ANNOUNCER:  Up next, he went to Iraq to serve his country, and the war changed his life forever.  Now, Private First Class J.R. Martinez is serving his country here at home, in ways that might surprise you.  His inspiring story, when DEBORAH NORVILLE TONIGHT returns.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

CONTESSA BREWER, MSNBC ANCHOR:  Hello, I‘m Contessa Brewer with the headlines. 

A top campaign lawyer for President Bush has resigned.  Benjamin Ginsberg stepped down after disclosing he has also been providing legal advice for Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, the group behind ads attacking John Kerry‘s Vietnam War record. 

Meantime, former Democratic Senator Max Cleland tried to deliver a letter protesting the ads to President Bush at his Texas ranch.  However, Cleland, who lost an arm and both legs in Vietnam, was turned away.  The White House called it a political stunt. 

An Army investigation into Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse concludes 27 members of a military intelligence unit were directly involved.  The report also recommends five senior officers face possible disciplinary action, even though they didn‘t take part in the abuses. 

And Iraq‘s most powerful religious leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, returned unexpectedly from Britain, where he received medical treatment.  He immediately called for a nationwide march on Najaf to end the three-week old uprising there. 

Now back to DEBORAH NORVILLE tonight.

NORVILLE:  On April 5, 2003, Private First Class Martinez‘s Humvee hit an antitank mine in Karbala.  He was trapped inside the tank in flames for 20 minutes.  On June 30, 2003, Martinez was well enough for a brief trip back home to Dalton, Georgia, and a hometown hero was welcomed back with open arms. 

But after Dalton, Georgia, which is also my hometown, realized they had more than just a war hero in J.R. Martinez, his spirit which apparently bears no scars has become an inspiration in his community and well beyond Dalton.  Jose Martinez joined the Army to pay for college.  He came home from Iraq with burns to more than 40 percent of his body.  A handsome young man who would have every right to see, in some ways, all of this as an unfair ending, but Private First Class J.R. Martinez saw this as a beginning. 

Joining me now to share his remarkable story is Private First Class Jose “J.R.” Martinez.  It‘s nice to see somebody from home. 

PFC JOSE “J.R.” MARTINEZ, U.S. ARMY:  Oh, it‘s great to be here.

NORVILLE:  When did you move to Dalton? 

MARTINEZ:  I moved to Dalton in the summer of 2001. 

NORVILLE:  Which was the beginning of your senior year? 

MARTINEZ:  Which is, yes.  It was about mid June when I moved to Dalton.  And not knowing anything, I was kind of scared of being able to be my senior year, and knowing the fact that I wasn‘t going to know anybody, not being your known guy my senior and go out like that.  So I was really nervous.

NORVILLE:  But when you got there, you found people gravitated towards you, welcomed you? 

MARTINEZ:  When I got there, it was just great.  People welcomed me with open arms, just like you mentioned earlier.  People would always accept me for who I was. 

They knew I had a talent to play football and that was the biggest thing in Dalton, football.  And as long as you play football, everybody welcomes you there.  So I was able to do that.  And once people came to know me, they just said, wow, this guy has a great personality. 

NORVILLE:  And then you graduate from high school and about six months after that you decided to enlist in the Army.  Why did you join the Army? 

MARTINEZ:  Well, I joined the Army because I wanted to go to college and play football.  As a kid, your dream is to play pro sports one day.

And I said, you know what, that dream is not going to be able to come true because—due to the fact that my requirements wouldn‘t allow me to be eligible to play sports in Georgia at the time.  So I said—I told my mom, I‘m going to go to the Army, go to college, give me a chance to mature, give me a chance to grow up, give me a chance learn a lot about life.  And that‘s what I did. 

NORVILLE:  And did your mom think this was a great idea or did she go, oh, gosh, don‘t do it? 

(CROSSTALK)

NORVILLE:  My baby.

MARTINEZ:  Don‘t do it.  That‘s exactly what it was, a mother being a mother, loving me.  And especially after 9/11 happened the previous year, she was scared.  She was being a mother, and it was a decision I had made and I said, I‘m going to go through with it. 

NORVILLE:  Did you think in a million years that you‘d be going to war? 

MARTINEZ:  No, not at all. 

And that‘s why when I heard that I was going, it really—it just scared me out of my mind.  I didn‘t know what to expect.  I didn‘t know if I was going to come home.  I didn‘t know if I was going to be able to come to that loving community that I lived in and to my mother and see everybody that welcomed me with open arms. 

NORVILLE:  You joined the 101st Airborne, which is a very elite unit, which saw an awful lot of action in Iraq.  Tell us about the situation that ended up with you being burned. 

MARTINEZ:  Well, what it was, I deployed the 9th of March, 2003.  And we waited for a couple weeks for all our equipment to get there.  Once it got there, we started patrolling through the southern cities of Iraq. 

On the 5th of April, I came to the city of Karbala, and when I got there, we had received orders that we had to reroute.  We weren‘t going to go through the city as we had planned.  We were going to just find a new route.  When I did, I was driving and there was three other guys in the vehicle with me.  And I remember just looking over at the passenger and just smiling.  And he said, OK, you know, you‘re trained and you know what to do.

(CROSSTALK)

NORVILLE:  Were you scared? 

MARTINEZ:  Yes, I was.  And being 19 years old and being at war, if that doesn‘t scare you, I don‘t know what does.

And I just remember after I turned and looked away from him and looked back at the road I was on, I just heard a loud explosion. 

NORVILLE:  And you were the last Hummer in a convoy of something like 90. 

MARTINEZ:  Right. 

NORVILLE:  All 89 vehicles had successfully passed through this spot and then you hit a land mine. 

MARTINEZ:  Right.  It‘s just one of those things where I say when something is planned for you, something is destined for you, it‘s going to happen.  There‘s nothing you can do to prevent it.  And when it happens, you have just got to look at it in a great way and a positive attitude and say I‘m going to move forward with this and I‘m not going to stop. 

NORVILLE:  So you hit the land mine, huge explosion.  What happened?  What do you remember? 

MARTINEZ:  Well, it‘s funny because I was conscious through the whole thing.  I remember when I heard the loud explosion, the next thing I can remember, just screaming at the top of my lungs for someone to get me out of this burning vehicle, that I didn‘t want to die here.

And when you hear people say all the time that, geez, my life flashed before my eyes, it‘s true.  It happened to me.  And what I seen was my mother at the funeral.  I seen them folding the flag and handing it to my mother.  And I didn‘t want that to happen.  And I just kept praying.  I just kept saying, please, don‘t let me die here.  This is not where I‘m destined to be.

NORVILLE:  And you were screaming at the top of your lungs for somebody to come and get you. 

MARTINEZ:  just screaming. 

My squad leader said—he said it was the most horrifying and terrible sound he ever heard in his life.  It was just somebody screaming at the top of their lungs to just get him out. 

NORVILLE:  And, as I said in the introduction, you were burned over 40 percent of your body.  And obviously you‘re burned on your face.  The rest of your body, your hands? 

MARTINEZ:  It was 40 percent.  It was my head, face, arms, hands and a portion of my legs. 

But the biggest thing I was facing at the time that was threatening my life, that was playing with my life, was, I had inhalation damage, where pretty much you‘re just left gasping for air.  And I couldn‘t.  So, immediately, when they airlifted me from the site, they took me back to a local place in Kuwait and immediately they put me on the ventilator because they didn‘t know if I was going to make it.  And they also tried to save me a lot of the pain that I was going to be going through. 

NORVILLE:  So they put you on drugs just to keep you sort of out of consciousness of what was going on. 

MARTINEZ:  Right. 

NORVILLE:  They shipped you back home to Texas, back to the medical base in San Antonio.  Your mother got there, and you came out of the coma. 

MARTINEZ:  Yes. 

NORVILLE:  What do you remember when you saw your mother‘s face? 

MARTINEZ:  It‘s kind of funny, because the day I left to go to Iraq, I remember hugging my mother and telling her, mom, just think of it like I‘m going on vacation and what—some kind of vacation.  And I said nobody can stop me.  I‘ll be back one way or another.

And the day they took the ventilator off of me and they called my name, I opened my eyes and I seen a bunch of doctors and nurses, my room full of doctors and nurses.  Immediately, I looked to my right and I seen my mother standing right there.  And I can‘t seem to describe how good of a feeling it was to see her there. 

And I told her, I said, I love you and I told you I‘d be back.  And when I said that, she turned around and looked at my doctor and said, he‘s going to be fine.  That‘s my J.R.  That‘s the J.R. I know. 

NORVILLE:  And yet, when you looked in the mirror, the J.R. you knew was not the J.R. that looked back at you.  Do you remember your initial thoughts?

MARTINEZ:  Yes. 

Every day, I told my mother I loved her.  And every day she left knowing that I loved her.  And I lived another day to tell her that.  And the day I seen my face, I was just going through so much pain and it‘s hard to describe, that you‘re used to a certain image for so long of your life and then in a split second it‘s changed.

And knowing that how is society going to accept you like this, how are the people, the public going to look at you?  I‘m 19 years old.  You know, I have a whole life ahead of me.  I was kept in this world for a reason, but if I‘m going to be kept like this, I don‘t want to be kept here.  And that was my mind-set.  That‘s what I thought.  I went through that phase where I just said, no, I don‘t want to be like this.  I don‘t want to live like this.  There‘s no hope for me. 

NORVILLE:  And yet, at some point, that changed and you decided to live.  When did that happen? 

MARTINEZ:  You know, and this is where you learn to appreciate what a mother does for you.  You learn to appreciate that all the sacrifices she makes for you and your whole life since you‘ve been a kid pays off and you realize that.

And what it was, was three or four days of me not telling her I love her, me not telling her anything and her going back to her room at night sad and not knowing how I felt.  One day, it came down to one just little phrase and her saying, you know what your problem is?  You‘re worried about girls.  You‘re worried about girls, or they‘re not going to like you for who you are.

And it dawned on me,  And I said, you know what?  You‘re right, ma.  I said, three or four days of nothing but conversation and that right there just said it all, you know.  And that‘s what made me realize that your true qualities are on the inside, not on the outside.  And that‘s something I want to get out to the public and just say be yourself and it‘s just you‘ll be a beautiful person. 

NORVILLE:  And the message that J.R. Martinez has seized upon himself is one that he‘s sharing. 

When we come back, how J.R. is using his experience in Iraq to help other service men and women and inspire them and inspire his neighbors back home.  And also coming up, we‘re going to be joined by J.R.‘s high school football coach and his best friend, both of whom say they‘re impressed but not really surprised by the impact J.R. is making. 

More with Specialist J.R. Martinez in just a moment.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

NORVILLE:  J.R. Martinez suffered wounds in Iraq that may seem unbearable, but he‘s using his experience to help others heal. 

More with him in a moment.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

NORVILLE:  Back now with Army 1st Class Jose, J.R., Martinez, who was burned and disfigured when his Humvee hit a land mine in Iraq.  But he has used the experience in some amazing ways.

And what you realized in that hospital is something that you‘ve now been taking to small groups everywhere you go, starting with your hometown of Dalton, Georgia. 

MARTINEZ:  That‘s right. 

When I got off the plane down in Dalton, Georgia, and I seen the crowd that welcomed me home, it just let me realize and sort of brought it home where I realized that what really matters is who you are on the inside and that people back if Dalton, Georgia, loved me for who I was, not my appearance or what I was going to look like in the future.  It‘s for who J.R. was. 

NORVILLE:  And was it hard for you to walk around town looking so different from the way you looked before?  I know you went over to the local high school.

MARTINEZ:  You know, it didn‘t, because I knew they reason.  I knew why I was the way I was. 

I knew that if I told—once people found out the reason I was the way I am is that they were going to respect me and they were going to appreciate what I‘ve done.  And walking around the high school and being there and speaking to classes, it just—never one moment I thought that it was different. 

NORVILLE:  And it was—you literally were walking down the hall and one of the teachers said, hey, J.R., come in and speak to these kids.  You didn‘t have any idea that you were going to be able to like do anything, right?

MARTINEZ:  No. 

(CROSSTALK)

NORVILLE:  So what happened? 

MARTINEZ:  I just said, you know what?  I‘m going to go in there and I‘m going to tell them what happened to me real quick.  I‘m going to touch on—I‘m just going to say how it‘s changed my life and I am who I am, and that‘s what the true qualities are.

And I got in there.  And when that class was over, I realized that I really had a talent and this was my talent.  This is what I was meant to do, was to be able to speak to people and use my personal experience to touch their lives and help them with whatever adversity they have been faced with. 

NORVILLE:  Among the people you‘ve touched are the folks who are with us from Dalton right now.

Coach Ronnie McClurg was J.R.‘s high school football coach.  He is with us from Dalton, as is Aaron Ward, J.R.‘s good friend and former teammate. 

We welcome you both. 

Coach, tell me what it is that J.R. is doing when he interacts with groups and touches them in the way he believes he is? 

RONNIE MCCLURG, HIGH SCHOOL FOOTBALL COACH:  Well, J.R., knowing J.R., when I met J.R., he came to us in 2001, and J.R. gave me a telephone call and I knew when I talked with J.R. that he was a special person.  He had a special attitude.  And the first day of practice, we had a rule here at the high school that, if you were a senior, you were not allowed to participate in football unless you made the first team or one of the first subs or special teams.

So J.R. came out the first day and was such an encouraging young man to all of the strangers on our football team.  I called him into the office following the practice and told J.R. that he had made our football team.  And that‘s the first time that I‘ve ever brought a person into the office the first day of practice that was coming out for his first time as a senior, but J.R. has been special from the day one that he entered Dalton High School.  And he‘s still the same J.R. today that he was the day I met him. 

NORVILLE:  Aaron, I know you and J.R. became good friends when he moved to school when both of you were seniors in high school.  What‘s it been like for you, seeing your friend go through this journey of injury and rediscovery of a life purpose? 

AARON WARD, FRIEND OF J.R.:  You know, when I first saw J.R., it really hurt me for him, because, when I saw him, I knew how he was and I knew that he was such, you know, a high-strung person, always liked to have a good time.

And I know that if something like this happens to you, that it‘s got to bring you down.  And when I first saw J.R. and gave him a hug off the plane, you know, I went off and cried because it hurt me for him.  And, you know, whenever I saw him again, he told me that I needed to cheer up because, you know, he‘s the one having to go through this.  I‘m not.  And he told me that everything is going to be OK.  And I‘ve decided I‘m going to have to be strong for him.  And we have just grown together and we‘ve been a great team together. 

NORVILLE:  What‘s it mean for you having friends like this during this period? 

MARTINEZ:  You know, I look at Coach McClurg and Aaron as more than a friend.  I look at them as family already.  And this is way before this ever happened.  Coach McClurg has always been the father figure that I never had for me and always gave me great advice and always leading me in the right direction. 

And Aaron, it‘s funny how we became great friends since this happened, and, you know, the guy you least expect is the guy that steps up to the plate and is there for you every single moment.  He called my mother every day, as Coach McClurg did as well, every day while I was in that coma until I came out.

NORVILLE:  Right. 

MARTINEZ:  And my mother, you know, she appreciates that and she knows that. 

NORVILLE:  Coach, I have to tell you, my phone rang off the hook this weekend when J.R. came back to town.  I have never had that many people from Dalton call me about anything. 

Help us understand how has this young man has impacted our community.

MCCLURG:  Well, I think that everybody has embraced J.R.

You know, everybody in Dalton—J.R. went off to war for our freedom and he sacrificed his life for our freedom and your freedom.  And I think everybody in Dalton, Georgia, recognizes the fact.  And we had a hero‘s welcome for J.R.

(CROSSTALK)

NORVILLE:  What‘s he saying to people, Coach, that‘s impacting them so that they sit there absolutely silent when he‘s speaking? 

MCCLURG:  Well, first of all, first of all, Deborah, automatically he has a captivating audience when he walks in from his appearance.

And then what comes out of his mouth is just absolutely amazing because of his attitude.  Everything, you know—we all have an attitude that we either can have a positive attitude or a negative attitude every morning we get up.  It‘s our choice.  And J.R. has always had the attitude.  Every morning he gets out of bed, he has a positive attitude. 

I think that separates J.R. from most people in America, is simply his attitude and his will to help others.  He is a lifter-upper.  He never pulls people down when you‘re around him.  And he gravitates people.  He also lifts people up in a very positive way every time you‘re with him. 

NORVILLE:  All right, Ronnie McClurg, Aaron Ward, thank you very much for being with us. 

We‘re going to take a short break.  When we come back, more of our conversation with J.R. Martinez. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

NORVILLE:  We‘re back with Private 1st Class J.R. Martinez, who was severely burned when the Humvee he was driving hit a land mine in Iraq.  He‘s been recovering.  And while doing so, he‘s been inspiring soldiers in the hospital with him and folks in his own community and beyond. 

You know, going into that commercial, J.R., we saw a graphic that said nearly 7,000 men and women have been wounded in the conflict in Iraq.  Do you feel like we forget about them sometimes?  It‘s an astonishing number. 

MARTINEZ:  Yes, I think we do. 

And I myself sometimes find myself forgetting about all the guys that are wounded.  If I wasn‘t at the hospital every day, I probably would forget about it.  And I‘ve been very lucky to be able to give my story out to the public and people have been hearing my story all the time.  But the reality of it is, is that when George Bush declared war, he just didn‘t say, J.R. Martinez, go on by yourself. 

We as an Army went in together, Marine, Air Force, everybody you could think of.  And we need to start supporting all those guys that put on the uniform every day. 

NORVILLE:  Do people look at you?  Do you feel different when you‘re in crowds with people?  Or do you not notice? 

MARTINEZ:  I don‘t notice at all.  I can go and hang out with friends.  I can go to a movie and I just stand in line like a regular old guy.  I‘m no different from anybody else. 

One thing I try to bring to people‘s attention is that I have scars on the outside, where they are visible.  But there are hundreds, thousands, millions of people who have them inside where nobody even has a clue.  And there is no difference.  People stare at me all the time and people look at me.  But I know why I‘m like this.  And that‘s what motivates me to keep going every day and it doesn‘t slow me down. 

NORVILLE:  And to that person who has the scar on the inside who is hurting about something, what do you say to them to help them get out of that self-pity or...

MARTINEZ:  I kind of say the same thing that I went through.  You deal with it.  You know, you face it.  You step up to the plate and you say, you know what?  This is something that‘s been bothering my life for so long, or it‘s coming to me now.  I‘m going to step up to the plate right now.  I‘m going to deal with it.  I‘m going to move forward.

Like for one reason or another, it‘s here in my life and I‘m going to make the best of it.  And I‘m not going to sit there and hide it inside and—because a lot of people just show that smile, but deep down they‘re really hurting.  And it‘s not the way it should be.  People should really show and deal with what they‘re really faced with. 

NORVILLE:  And you‘re also using your message to try to help other soldiers.  There‘s an organization that you‘re involved with that actually brings wounded soldiers down to Disneyland and Disney World so they can have some fun time with their parents. 

MARTINEZ:  Oh, it‘s a great organization.  It‘s called Coalition to Salute America‘s Heroes.  And—since day one, I have said, you know what?  I want to use my experience to help so many troops and so many families, guys that haven‘t been as fortunate I have to get so much support from the nation, from my community, the nation and internationally. 

And I want these guys to get that and more than what I‘ve gotten.  And this is—we‘re having our first annual Road to Recovery Conference in Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida, December 8 through the 12th in 2004.  And we‘re sending roughly of the most seriously wounded and disabled troops out of Iraq and Afghanistan and their immediate family to help them overcome all the adversity they‘ve been faced with. 

And you think these men and women have paid such a heavy price for us.  Well, it‘s the least we can do to help them out, to step up to the plate and say, you know what?  We recognize what you‘ve done and we appreciate everything you‘ve done for us. 

NORVILLE:  I know have had 20-some-odd surgeries and you have probably got a lot more to go to deal with all the scarring.  Do you regret having gone to Iraq? 

MARTINEZ:  Not at all.  And there‘s no hesitation in that answer.  And I‘ll tell you why. 

I say, because when I come home, I see how people appreciate what I‘ve done and I see how people appreciate how—just what I‘ve done and I‘ve sacrificed.  And that‘s why I never regret what I have done. 

NORVILLE:  All right, I think it was Thoreau who said, to affect the quality of the day is the highest of the arts.  I think you‘re affecting a lot of people‘s lives out there.

(CROSSTALK)  

NORVILLE:  J.R., pleasure to meet you.  Thanks for being with being us.

MARTINEZ:  Oh, thanks for having me, Deborah.

NORVILLE:  We‘ll be right back with the latest on the swift boat veterans commercial flap. so stay tuned.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

NORVILLE:  We love to hear from you, so send us your ideas and comments to us as NORVILLE@MSNBC.com.  We have got some of your e-mails posted on our Web site.  That address is NORVILLE.MSNBC.com.  And that‘s also where you can sign up for our newsletter and also learn more about the program that J.R. Martinez was talking about. 

That is our program for tonight.  I‘m Deborah Norville.  Thanks so much for watching. 

Coming up tomorrow night, why the war has become a central issue in the presidential race, not the Iraq war, the Vietnam War, from the men who call themselves the Swift Boat Veterans For Truth, to the Kerry campaign‘s decision to put their candidate‘s war service front and center.  We will look at the lingering questions about George Bush‘s war record, his service, and dissent during the Vietnam War from John Kerry.  Why, 30 years later, does this all still inflame so much passion? 

That‘s it for now. 

Coming up next, former Senator Bob Dole joins Joe Scarborough with his take on this very same issue.  “SCARBOROUGH COUNTRY” is coming up next. 

We‘ll see you tomorrow night.

END   

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