Jay Silverstein can cross this off his bucket list. More than a decade after missing his first chance, the vice president of corporate real estate and services for Credit Suisse got the experience of a lifetime. In March, he returned from a month-long adventure as part of the National Restaurant Association Military Foundation program. He left New Jersey, his wife and job on Feb. 18 and spent the next 29 days visiting Marine bases as far as Okinawa, Japan to evaluate their foodservice across a variety of categories. His mission was to help identify the WPT Hill Award winners for excellence in Marine Corps foodservice. Since its start, the Society for Hospitality and Foodservice Management (previously SFM) had been a part of the similar Hennessey Travelers Program that evaluated Air Force foodservice, but Silverstein was the first to experience the Marines. Here are some of the highlights.

How does an opportunity like this come up?

: Usually it’s the president of SHFM selected after they serve, but when I was president back in the Stone Ages my family was very young and I couldn’t leave them. This opportunity came up in 2013 and I begged and pleaded with my wife, like with everything, and with all the kids out of the house, it finally worked out.

How did you prepare for the trip?

I read about previous Hill winners and studied up on Marines to understand their philosophy and some of the acronyms. I emailed everyone I knew who went. I talked to Dick Hynes [of Hobart and a 2006 Hennessy Traveler], who I’ve known for years and I know his wife and she knows my wife. I asked him what I needed to know, and he said, ‘Bring rubbers.’ ‘Whoa, Dick, wait a minute…’ He said, ‘Galoshes. You’ll be out in the field, your shoes will get dirty.’

Who did you travel with and how did the trip start?

The only communication I had with Lt. Col. Gary Spinelli and Master Gunnery Sgt. Marco Barnes, the two I’d be traveling with, was by email. I had no clue what they looked like, and I flew from New Jersey to Chicago to meet up with them. My flight got delayed and I was the last one on the flight. I’m running down the aisle and in the last seat in the last row. I was told not to upgrade my ticket to business class—it’s not polite for the military, who’ll be flying coach. So I’m in the back looking at everyone, eyeballing anyone in a uniform because I assume that’s how they travel. Once the plane gets off the ground, I start questioning everyone in uniform. They probably thought I was a crackpot.

I’m sitting in the worst seat in the plane and these two guys were sitting in business class because they upgraded. And they’re not wearing uniforms. They’re waiting for me when I get off the plane in Tokyo. It was one of those strange situations: You don’t know the people you’ll be with for the next 29 days.

Did you hit it off with your escorts?

From there we flew to Okinawa. It’s a long, challenging flight. Everyone is speaking Japanese, I don’t understand the language and I’m sitting there, smiling, with no clue what the hell I’m in for. We land and get picked up by more Marines there—in uniform, thank goodness, so I know I’m with the right people. I was told to call everyone by their proper titles and they’re calling me Mr. Silverstein. Both Lt. Col. Spinelli and Master Gunnery Sgt. Barnes had served in Okinawa and they were talking to other Marines and being perfect gentlemen, not a curse word at all. I’m a little taken aback. These are Marines! They’re trying to include me in conversations and I’m exhausted and totally lost. I’m not a straight-laced guy and don’t feel comfortable, so finally used some real guttural language to make them feel comfortable. That set the tone—I think they expected some formal investment banker. From that moment forward, I bonded with them. They were unbelievably respectful of me, to make sure I felt included in everything we did the entire time. They explained every acronym and it became a dinnertime joke as the Colonel would test me each night.