J.R. Martinez J.R. Martinez

J.R. Martinez didn't get the highest score — that honor went to Ricki Lake, who impressed yet again with a sensuous rumba. And it wasn't as if the show hasn't already produced its share of standing ovations. But what happened on last night's Dancing With the Stars lifted the ballroom to an emotional height unseen in 13 seasons.

Martinez, an actor and Iraqi war veteran who was badly burned during his 2003 tour of duty, and his partner, Karina Smirnoff, decided to honor the military men and women who didn't come home and get a second chance. When they finished, Martinez and Smirnoff were crying, along with judge Carrie Ann Inaba and many in the audience, who didn't want to stop clapping and didn't want to sit down. 

"I've never cried in front of that many people before," Martinez said after the show. "Karina was telling me that in order to get to that place, in order to pay tribute to the men and women in uniform, I needed to be an open book tonight. I needed to be willing to go to that place and tap into that time in my life when it wasn't all pictures and fame and everyone caring — when I felt so alone."

Added Smirnoff, "We got through talking about the physical injury, then we tapped into the emotional journey that J.R. had to go through: the coma, and waking up and seeing the light above the bed, turning his eyes but not his head to see his mom, because he couldn't move his head. And the nurse giving him the mirror [to look at the extent of his burns, which covered more than 40 percent of his body]. And all the emotions he had to go through, the anger, the questions. And then taking all of this and turning it into something so strong and positive."

Martinez has brought out great tenderness in Smirnoff, a fiery Russian who is known for being tough-minded and strong-willed. Her dancing, already brilliant, has never been better. "He inspires me," she says. "And to have that kind of response in the ballroom, to have people crying with us? It's so much bigger than us. Whether we win this [competition] or not, it will always be part of this experience, and a dance we'll never forget."

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