For seven years, WWE visited the war zone over the holidays to offer service members a star-studded, Santa-slugging slice of home with its "Tribute to the Troops" special.

How close to home?

"I met an older soldier over there, I think it was his fourth or fifth tour. I think I was doing an autograph signing," said Mike "The Miz" Mizanin, the former MTV reality show star who has since risen through the WWE ranks. "And he was like, 'Here's a picture of my newborn.' And the picture was of me and the newborn. I was like, 'Wow, that's amazing,' and he said, 'Yeah, you met my son before I did.' I couldn't believe it ... talk about a sacrifice."

The WWE's "Tribute to the Troops" shows moved stateside in 2010, performed at or near military installations with free tickets offered to service members and their families. This year's event, taped in early December near Fort Benning, Georgia, will air as a two-hour special Wednesday at 8 p.m. Eastern on the USA Network and in a one-hour format Dec. 27 at 8 p.m. Eastern on NBC.

Mizanin's military fan base may be larger than that of most WWE talent, and not just because of his "Real World" run: He became the third different wrestler to star in WWE Films' "The Marine" movie series when "The Marine 3: Homefront" debuted this year, and he'll reprise his role in the fourth installment, due out in 2015.

He spoke with Military Times on Tuesday about the films and his experiences as part of WWE's military outreach. Questions and answers have been edited for clarity.

Q. You made the trip to Iraq with the WWE for the 2008 "Tribute to the Troops" show. What do you remember from that?

A. It gave me a whole new appreciation for what our armed forces does. You see the war on the news all the time. You watch that, you see the way the TV presents it. Once you go over there, you're in the war zone and you see the life the soldiers live, it's incredible. It was just desert. The only thing to do there is work, eat and work out. Sometimes you can use the Internet, but most of the time it doesn't even work. I went to a camp where there was no running water. ... It was incredible. Not only are they sacrificing their lives, their time away from their families, but the normalcies that we take for granted over here, they don't have.

Q. How is interacting with service members different from interacting with other groups of fans?

The Miz Tribute to the Troops Courtesy WWE
The Miz Tribute to the Troops Courtesy WWE

WWE's Mike "The Miz" Mizanin greets soldiers during a recent visit to Fort Benning, Ga.

Photo Credit: Courtesy of WWE

A. It's pretty incredible to see. I'll just never forget, when I went to Iraq, I met this 18-year-old. I was like, "What do you do?" and he was like, "Oh, I drive the armored vehicle." And he shows me the armored vehicle, and it has like an orange pole sticking out of it. It didn't look like it was supposed to be there. I go, "What's the pole for?" He says, "That's so the land mines won't blow us up." I said, "Does that ever happen?" He said, "Yeah, it happened yesterday." He said it so nonchalantly, I couldn't believe what I was hearing. This was normal for him. It happens all the time. ... That is scary.

Q. Were you surprised at the reaction you received overseas?

A. You go over there, you don't know what to expect. You're in a war zone. You're nervous. But they just want to see people that aren't in uniforms. Just us being in regular clothes is something they don't get to see too often. They are so used to doing their same routine, throw in a little hiccup. Throw in something to give them a little refresher. It means the world to them. It's just the little things you can do to put a smile on their face. That's exactly what we try to do.

Q. The shows have moved stateside recently. How has that experience been different?

A. Every year we're trying to make it individually special [to the installation]. I think this year, we really succeeded. ... We brought Florida Georgia Line, an amazing concert. Celebrity messages from Angelina Jolie, Eva Longoria, the Kardashians, so many more. ... Some of the troops were deploying the next day. So it's the last time that they kind of get to spend with their families before they have to go.

Q. How do you tweak your performance for a "Tribute to the Troops" show, especially as a "bad guy"?

A. You always go off what the audience is doing. Me, I never consider myself a bad guy. I consider myself a good guy. Now, the audience thinks differently. They love to boo me. ... [Service members] just want to be a part of the show that they see every week, so we're going to give them that show. So if I go out there and they're booing me, guess what? I'm going to make you boo me louder, you know, so when their hero or the person that they love comes out, they're going to cheer them even louder. ... You make it extra special for them. You want to leave them with memories that will last a lifetime.

Q. Have you gotten any feedback from Marines about your role in "The Marine 3: Home Front"?

The Marine 3: Homefront poster
The Marine 3: Homefront poster

"The Miz" became the third WWE performer to take on the title role in "The Marine" movie series. John Cena was the first, followed by Ted DiBiase Jr.

Photo Credit: WWE

A. Oh, yeah. I tried to make it as authentic as possible: I had a guy actually teach me how a Marine would hold a gun, how a Marine clears a room. As far as the uniform, when I got my uniform, when I first got there, I showed them the badges that I wanted, but when they gave it to me, they kind of gave me the wrong badges. Not only that, I guess when you're outside you always wear your hat? That was the director's choice [not to], because you couldn't see my face. ... The other thing was that I wasn't fully shaved. I was like, "But I was on a bus forever [heading home on leave]," and they said, "Still, you're in uniform." I go, "All right."

Q. Other than the uniform, what have the reviews from the military been like?

A. The No. 1 thing for me was, I couldn't care less what Rotten Tomatoes or any other dot-com critics have to say. The real critics for me were the Marines. Most Marines told me they really enjoyed the movie. I was really glad to have the feedback from them. That's the most meaningful to me.

Bonus fact: While the "Tribute to the Troops" tours stayed home, the WWE has continued to visit service members over the holidays. This year's trip, highlights of which will be aired on the special, included company chairman and CEO Vince McMahon, Big Show and WWE "Diva" Summer Rae, who will star alongside Mizanin in "The Marine 4: Hard Target," due out early this year.