Over the past two years, Marco Rivera has enjoyed his share of unique experiences.
The Green Bay Packers offensive guard has twice been to Hawaii to play in back-to-back Pro Bowls, and it was just over two years ago that he and his wife, Michelle, were invited to the White House to meet President George W. Bush.
But compared to all of those events, and all of the Packers' victories in between, nothing stands up to what Rivera is experiencing now, halfway across the world and halfway through a four-day NFL-USO trip to the Middle East to visit U.S. bases in Kuwait and Qatar.
"This ranks top of the list, hands down," Rivera said Tuesday evening from Kuwait. "Meeting the president was nice. Going to the Pro Bowl, that was a great personal accomplishment. But when you get the chance to come over here and meet these American troops who are putting their lives on the line every day, and to make a small difference in their lives, that means more to me than anything else."
Rivera is making the trip through the Middle East with former NFL player and current FOX analyst Brian Baldinger. Together, the duo has already visited a handful of U.S. camps, including Camp Wolverine where they are based, to lend their support to the servicemen and servicewomen stationed there.
"We're just here to give them some happy time," Rivera said, "take photos, talk football, whatever. And we're here to make sure that the troops know that we're behind them 100 percent, and that we in the NFL respect them and appreciate the sacrifices they're making so we can have the freedom we have to run around on the football field on Sunday."
Rivera got involved in the NFL-USO visit when a member of the league office contacted him about the idea earlier this month during the Packers' recent mini-camp.
Reluctant at first due to safety concerns, Rivera quickly warmed to the idea. And any remaining fears about the trip were put at ease soon after his arrival.
"I expected to see a war-torn country and people in chaos," Rivera said. "Instead, I've come to find that Kuwait is a beautiful country, with beautiful homes and polite, educated people. Remembering the previous Gulf War and seeing the current media coverage about the war in Iraq, it paints a different picture than what I've seen here with my own eyes."
Most impressive of all, Rivera says, has been the sight of U.S. troops. Out in 120-degree heat, staying in camps constructed from scratch, the efficiency of the U.S. military has been inspiring.
"The military is a well-oiled machine," Rivera says. "The soldiers show up in the middle of the desert and put up a camp that holds 5,000 troops and has air-conditioned tents and running water. It's amazing.
"And all day long they work hard and don't complain. They're just focused on doing their jobs and trying to make a difference."
By making the trip, Rivera hopes he can make a small difference in the lives of the soldiers he meets there, even if it's just to serve as a momentary distraction from the daily grind.
But while Rivera is supposed to be the celebrity, he's the one walking away from each meeting with goose bumps. At each stop, he's been especially taken aback by the number of Packers fans he's come across -- fans who have packed their Packers pride all the way to the Middle East.
"I'm on the other side of the world and just the other day I signed a Packers football that a guy had here in Kuwait," Rivera said. "Just after that, another guy walked out of the same tent wearing a Packers T-shirt.
"Today I met at least 20 pilots from Milwaukee and they talked to me as if they knew me on a first-name basis, like they were old pals of mine from home. And it was great. They're just guys from Milwaukee with a job to do, and we happened to meet here.
"I also met a Marine today who had an Ahman Green jersey. I mean, he comes all the way out to Kuwait ready to fight in a war, and when he packs his clothes one of the things he makes sure that he brings with him is an Ahman Green jersey. It just shows what great football fans these guys are, and how much the game means to them."
But on this trip the respect and the admiration go both ways. And with each meeting on his NFL-USO tour, Rivera says he's becoming an even greater fan of the men and women in fatigues.
"When I leave here, I'm going to leave here a changed man," Rivera said. "The only reason I'm able to do what I do for a living, is because these troops make it possible. They're the reason.
"And seeing the troops here and meeting them has been such a great experience. I'm so glad I came."