After 13 years in the U.S. Marine Corps, J.W. Cortes now works as an officer for the New York MTA (Metropolitan Transit Authority) Police Department. For a short time earlier this summer, he headed to California to participate in filming for the NBC Monday-night reality series “Stars Earn Stripes,” which has its first-season finale next week.
The show partners celebrities with “operatives” — who feature a mix of military and law-enforcement experience — competing on simulated military-training missions to earn money for charities supporting both service personnel and first responders.
Cortes is paired with Todd Palin, four-time Iron Dog Snowmobile Race champion, outdoorsman and husband of former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, who was the 2008 GOP vice-presidential candidate and currently works as a Fox News contributor.
But on this particular Monday (Aug. 27) morning, a regular day on the job in Gotham for Cortes turned into a celebrity encounter — for Cortes, that is, who got to meet fellow former U.S. Marine Tyler Dodd (on the right above, with Cortes, at left), under surprising circumstances.
“I was working in Grand Central Terminal at around 10:30 this morning,” Cortes tells Zap2it, “and over the police radio, I hear a call for police officer needing assistance. I responded to the corner of 43rd and Vanderbilt Ave.
“Basically, I see a police officer and two guys in a scuffle. I go to the police officer; I assist him in arresting one suspect. Then the other one is tell us that he’s not the bad guy, that he chased this person. He keeps telling us, ‘This guy, he just robbed somebody,’ something. I wasn’t really that sure what the bad guy had done.
“So, lo and behold, we’re talking, and he’s telling me that he’s an Iraq and Afghanistan War veteran. He’s got two Purple Hearts. We’re talking, and he looks at me and says, ‘Aren’t you on “Stars Earn Stripes”?’ I said, ‘This isn’t about me; this is about you, man. You did a great job.’ I’m telling him, ‘This is outstanding, good for you. Dangerous. It was very dangerous. This thing could have gone horribly wrong, but congratulations are in order. You did an outstanding job.’
“He was just so humble. He told me he was a staff sergeant, showed me his wounds. I was so in awe of him, just how nice he was. That’s basically the gist of it.”
Although all of his military skills are in display on “Stars Earn Stripes,” Cortes was the one impressed by his new acquaintance.
“I made sure he was OK,” he says, “and he was so thankful to us. It’s just part of our job description. We respond to people who need help, but to see somebody like him, who has been injured in combat, maybe not as physically up as he once was, but it doesn’t matter, says, ‘I’m going to do something right,’ is impressive.
“It’s great to know there are people out there.”
But, emphasizes Cortes, the best thing to do is to call 911.
“We have all the toys with us,” he says. “There’s some 40,000 odd cops in New York to come to your aid. I said, ‘Look what just happened by the Empire State Building. You never know what you’re going to walk into. There’s always an element of surprise.’
“He apologized. I said, ‘No need to. I just wanted you to be careful, be aware.’ He said, ‘Honestly, I don’t know what took over. Maybe it’s just my Marine Corps training.’ That, I can definitely understand.”
According to Cortes, Dodd told him that he was active in the Wounded Warrior Project, on behalf of which “Stars Earn Stripes” celebrity Dean Cain and operative Chris Kyle are competing.
“They’re doing an impeccable job for that charity,” says Cortes.
Told of his partner’s meeting with Dodd, Palin says, “That’s awesome. That’s cool.”
Cortes and Palin are competing for the Armed Services YMCA of Alaska, which helps service members and their families. Palin has invited Cortes to come up next May for some “Combat Fishing.”
“Last year,” says Palin, “they had 250 men and women, servicemen, fishing for Halibut in Seward, Alaska, and all the charter boats donate their time for that day. It’s an incredible event. I think it’s only best to have him come up and talk to Alaska’s soldiers.
Told that J.W. was impressed with his skills, Palin says, “I’m just another Alaskan grandpa.”
Both Palin and Cortes are impressed with competitor Nick Lachey, who survived his second elimination challenge in Monday’s (Aug. 27) episode, besting boxer Laila Ali.
“Nick is just rock solid,” says Palin. “He’s a good man. I’m so excited for him and Vanessa, their new baby boy coming within the next couple weeks. He’s just awesome.”
“I didn’t know what to expect, honestly,” says Cortes. “What I quickly learned is, number one, he’s intelligent; number two, he’s a guy’s guy. He was there for the right reasons. He chose a charity for police officers, and I thanked him for that.”