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LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - U.S. presidents aren't the only ones who make surprise visits to troops in Afghanistan. "The Fighter" Mark Wahlberg made his own trek to the war-torn country in December, but with little media attention that typically follows dignitaries and Hollywood stars.
Dressed in jeans, leather jacket, bullet-proof vest and battle-ready helmet, Wahlberg stepped off military transport and into the former home of a Taliban drug lord who had been ousted by troops. There was no Hollywood-style shootout, although he says he might have felt better with a gun in his hand.
The 36-hour visit days before Christmas was made without much fan fare because, he said, he didn't want any publicity.
"That's not why I was going," he told Reuters in an exclusive interview this week. "I just wanted to go over there and spend some time with them and know that we do appreciate what they're doing, and bring well wishes and love and support from home. That's all I wanted to do.
He said he wanted to see for himself the conditions under which the troops and the Afghani people were living. "It was something that I was very excited about doing, and I'm very glad that I made the journey."
Wahlberg, 39, rose to fame as a young rapper and later became a movie actor and producer of hit HBO show "Entourage," which is based on his own life as an up-and-coming star.
He even portrayed an ex-military marksman in "Shooter," and said that when he was young and in legal trouble he considered joining the Marines. His trip to Afghanistan was the first time, he said, he had a chance to visit troops.
The quick in-and-out was arranged by Bill White, ex-head of New York's Intrepid Air Sea and Space Museum, who met Wahlberg through a friend. Wahlberg told White he'd like to go to Afghanistan. White said he would see if he could arrange it.
Wahlberg, a married man with four kids, said traveling into a war zone before Christmas was not an easy decision, but his family understood.
"I've been in a lot of hairy situations in the past, and I felt like, you know, we were going to be traveling with the military, so it can't get much safer than that."
When asked if he was scared, he smiled and said, "I probably would have felt a little safer had I had my own weapons ... but no, I'm a very spiritual guy and I get on my hands and my knees and ask God to protect me."
While at camps in the Helmand province of southern Afghanistan, the actor showed "The Fighter," an inspirational film about a boxing champion played by Wahlberg, to some 3,000 troops. He ate with them and visited them in hospitals. They asked questions, took pictures and collected autographs.
"They're still extremely positive and optimistic that they're doing a lot of good over there and helping a country that's really in need," Wahlberg said.
He said he was surprised to find that, not only did troops know him, but Afghani people and troops did, too.
"The Fighter," of course, is enjoying major success in Hollywood during this awards season. Box office is solid; reviews are strong. It has made several 2010 top 10 lists, and is widely expected to pick up Oscar nominations when bids for the world's top film honors are handed out later this month.
Where the troops' reviews were concerned, Wahlberg said it was better than some pundits in Hollywood.
"I've always considered the military as the real super-athletes of the world, and if anybody could appreciate (his boxing character's) fight and heart and never-give-up attitude, it would be the soldiers of the Armed Forces," he said. "So, they really got a kick out of the movie.
If "The Fighter" should win Oscars, the actor who is known to shun the limelight said on Hollywood's big night, his wish would be to have the troops back home to enjoy it, too.
"I know that they have a job to do, and I understand that, but I hope that they finish their job quickly, and they return home safely to their families."
Editing by Mary Milliken and Christine Kearney