NEW YORK -- It's hardly rare that celebrities and athletes visit troops overseas.
Bob Hope became synonymous with USO tours some 60 years ago, and Bing Crosby toured bases in Europe during World War II. Marilyn Monroe visited Korea during the 1950s, NFL players went to Vietnam in the '60s, and Project Salute took dozens of entertainers to the Persian Gulf.
Less common is an athlete or celebrity volunteering to visit the most dangerous bases on the front line, then being so moved by the experience it becomes an annual trip.
Oscar De La Hoya recently returned to the United States from a weeklong stay with troops in the Middle East, visiting several places he couldn't even discuss because of security concerns.
He took along with him several young fighters from his Golden Boy Promotions stable, and together they learned what real fighting is all about.
"It's something that I've wanted to do for the longest time," said De La Hoya, who won Olympic gold for the U.S. before becoming an icon in professional boxing.
"It was long overdue, and I'm sure glad I did it," he said during an interview with The Associated Press. "It really was an unforgettable experience, to really witness and feel, even for a week, what these soldiers are going through. It really impacted me in such a way where, my gosh, I have even more respect for them."
On four separate occasions, sirens went off and De La Hoya said he had to take cover from incoming artillery -- twice for mortars, twice for missiles.
On another occasion, he remembered walking through camp and seeing a girl -- he swore she could have been 13 years old, but she was actually 20 or 21 -- who was carrying an assault rifle that De La Hoya said seemed bigger than her. "I was so impacted by that," he said.
De La Hoya approached the USO about visiting the troops a while back. He was given options of where he wanted to go, and wound up choosing some of the most dangerous bases available, including destinations in Kuwait and Iraq.
"I wanted to go to these camps where soldiers are not exposed to outside life, outside their camp, where people don't normally visit the troops," De La Hoya said. "When we got to one of the camps in Basra, these people were so appreciative of us being there. All I can do is just praise them and tell them how much we respect them."
De La Hoya signed plenty of autographs and posed for countless pictures, but mostly he shook hands with thousands of troops and offered them his support.
He was joined on the trip by Adrien Broner, an unbeaten lightweight contender, rising prospect Danny Jacobs, and Seth Mitchell, a former Michigan State linebacker who has not lost in 22 professional fights since beginning his heavyweight boxing career.
"I have nothing but respect for our men and women in uniform and I thank the USO for giving me the opportunity to go out and show them my appreciation," Mitchell said.
"I have to admit, compared to what I have learned our troops go through every day, I think my kind of toughness is different from theirs," added Broner, who is known for his flamboyance inside the ring. "I don't think I know anyone as tough as they are."
More than anything else, De La Hoya said the little things left an impression.
The water wasn't portable, so there were piles of water bottles all over the place. When he turned on the shower, the water that came out was dirt yellow. And when he finally got out of the shower, he realized that there were no towels to dry off.
Of course, it's been years since Saddam Hussein was toppled. Things are better than when the first troops headed to the Middle East. But that's part of the reason De La Hoya wanted to visit now. As conflicts break out in Libya and elsewhere, and a large percentage of troops withdraw from Iraq, he wanted to remind people that soldiers are still over there.
It left such an impression that he wants to visit again next year.
"We didn't know what to expect," he said. "Obviously with me, having this idea of going down there, and when I said let's take three of our young prospects and live the experience also along with me, we got there and they didn't know what to expect.
"We kind of grew up overnight being there," De La Hoya said. "Our perspective on life changed for everyone in a certain way."