Sunset Park native J.W. Cortes has come a long way. Having grown up in the neighborhood during the middle of the 80s crack epidemic, the ex-Marine now stars in the NBC reality show, Stars Earn Stripes, which just finished its first season on September 3.
My parents tried their best to provide and keep us out of trouble, Cortes recalled. Eventually I found myself at a crossroads and what came out of that was my great escape into the Marine Corps. It was my way out of a really bad situation.
Cortes said his biggest influence was his Puerto Rican-born mother. She reminded me that I could do so much more with myself, he said, noting that he joined the Marines in 1993.
Cortes spent a total of 13 years with the Marines, traveling the world and being blown away by the other side of life. But after he was nearly killed by a scud missile attack in Iraq in 2003, he decided he wanted a change.
I wanted to give childhood dreams of mine, which included acting, a chance, he said. When you come close to losing your life its a horrible feeling.
When Cortes returned home, he was unemployed and had to shelve his dreams for some time. He did eventually find a job with the MTA police in 2004 and remained in the Reserves until 2007.
Earlier this year, NBC somehow or another found Cortes and asked him to be on their upcoming reality series.
I thought it was a prank call. I said I had no interest in reality TV, let along anything that had to be around the military. It seemed wrong to me, he recalled.
But after getting a second call, Cortes understood the premise of the show better and headed out to Tinseltown to meet with producers. Im a kid from Brooklyn. This is so far [from what I am used to]. I didnt know what to expect, he said.
When he arrived, producers explained that the show was about celebration of service and would illustrate the struggles that law enforcement and first responders go through on a daily basis.
What got me hooked was that everything we are doing would be giving to charity, Cortes said, adding that proceeds go to causes such as the Wounded Warrior Project and Badge of Honor. As I had been unemployed, I always wanted to get involved to help vets not go through the same things that I did. So many [veterans] find themselves on the street. Its ironically disgusting.
Cortes spent June shooting the show in Los Angeles, mostly working with Todd Palin, husband of 2008 Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin.
Initially I didnt know what to expect, Cortes said. I quickly learned that we had so much in common. Geographically, we couldnt get more distance between us but we learned that our families were going through similar situations and we bonded.
Palin has a son serving in Afghanistan and Cortes knows first-hand what that experience is like. Palin has a son with Down Syndrome and Cortes youngest son is autistic.
We felt we were underdogs and we embraced that, Cortes said. Todd represents 99 percent of America who werent born with physical abilities, but just want to serve. I do that every day as a cop.
Besides a Season 2, which may be in works, Cortes is involved in autism awareness and the Wounded Warriors Project. It hits close to home, he said, adding that he wants to go on tour with the USO to Iraq.
I am thankful to everyone in Sunset Park, Cortes said. Brooklyn gets a lot of love and there are really some great communities that need some representation.