updated 02/28/2014 AT 12:00 PM ET
•originally published 02/28/2014 AT 1:05 PM ET
It’s been 11 years since Dancing with the Stars champ and injured Iraq war veteran J.R. Martinez has been back to the Middle East after a land-mine explosion left him with severe burns, but Martinez tells PEOPLE his return was an “amazing experience.”
“It was pretty emotional,” he says of his January trip to the Al Udeid Air Base in Doha, Qatar. “To go through the same procedures, like landing at the airport and getting into the bus and making the commute to the base – just pulling in and seeing the sand and the barriers reminded me of the very first night when I landed in Kuwait City. It really brought back those memories from the first time I was ever in the Middle East.”
While Martinez spoke with lots of U.S. troops during the trip, one thing that he wasn’t ready for? All his ballroom fans.
“You’d be surprised how far that show reaches,” he says. “I never would have known that the world was watching while Karina and I were holed up in a studio rehearsing. A lot of service members came up and were excited and wanted me to dance and I said listen, ‘I can’t really do what you saw me do on television without Karina being here!’ ”