TYNDALL AIR FORCE BASE, Fla. - They saw their employees as they had never seen them before.

Instead of the office in New Jersey, they observed them at a Florida Air Force base, on a runway that's blown up once a week just so it can be fixed.

They listened to New Jersey Air National Guard members describe the repairs as plumes of black smoke billowed from a plane set ablaze to teach other airmen firefighting skills.

By the end of the day, two dozen employers, many from South Jersey, got a taste of military life, then said goodbye to their airmen-colleagues at Tyndall Air Force Base near Panama City.

The visit comes at a time when many companies have been stressed by the departure of key employees on extended deployments and short-notice call-ups by the Guard and Reserve in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The employees, 64 members of the 108th Air National Guard Civil Engineers from McGuire Air Force Base, will be sent to Iraq days after Christmas. Half are from Burlington, Camden, Gloucester, Mercer, and Atlantic Counties.

For companies, deployments are "tough, and we've been preparing for six months," said Ross Levin, director of public development for Acsis, a Marlton software firm where one of the airmen works. "We have a consultant, but we're looking forward to having [the employee] back."

The employers were flown to the base last week in a huge Air Force KC-135 tanker as part of a "Bosslift" program arranged by Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve, a Defense Department agency.

The trip, the third this year, was intended to help them understand their employees' service and the crucial role of the Guard and Reserves, which now comprise 48 percent of the military's manpower.

Nearly 137,000 members of the Guard and Reserve of the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard are on active duty, the Defense Department said last week.

During a Thursday ceremony at Tyndall, the airmen of the 108th stood at attention while they and their bosses were thanked for their sacrifices.

"I just want to say how proud of you I am," said Maj. Gen. Maria A. Falca-Dodson, commander of the New Jersey Air National Guard. "I know what kind of job you'll do, the kind of airmen you are."

The employers and seven New Jersey mayors were greeted by Air Force commanders and given mementoes of their visit.

Deployments "can cause a hardship, particularly in the case of very small companies," said Christopher Biddle, a spokesman for the New Jersey Business and Industry Association, an advocacy group for 22,000 companies and industries. "Many employers have extremely lean staffs as it is because of the recession."

But, he said, companies also have "a tremendous amount of pride in the service of [their] employees in the Guard and Reserve."

Employers are required by law to hold jobs open for those called to active duty. They "learn to face the challenges," Biddle said. "They make do with what they have."

For many, the temporary loss of manpower is "a balancing act," said Retired Army National Guard Col. Carmen Venticinque, chairman of the New Jersey Committee of the Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve.

"It's an imposition, but these young men and women are sacrificing a good deal to preserve our freedoms."

For the next six months, many members of the 108th will be doing work quite different from their regular jobs.

Instead of maintaining a computer system for Acsis in Marlton, Senior Airman Brian Trinidad of Carneys Point, Salem County, will operate heavy road-grading equipment to repair bomb-damaged runways in Iraq.

"It's completely opposite of what I do in civilian life," said Trinidad, 38, Acsis' senior network administrator and the married father of three. "I repair runways that are cratered."

Instead of repairing power lines and installing meters for Public Service Electric & Gas, Technical Sgt. Brian Belk and Master Sgt. William Price will install runway lights and wire air bases in remote locations.

"This is the first time they [employers] have come to see our training," said Belk, 45, of Westampton, who had lunch with Price and their boss, John O'Connell, division manager for PSE&G's southern electric operations.

The employers' visit "shows they care about me and my family," added Price, 49, of Eastampton.

The trip taught O'Connell "a lot about the Air National Guard and what's involved," he said. "PSE&G really supports [the Guard and Reserve], and trips like this make it even easier."

Some members of the 108th, such as Master Sgt. Patrick Basnett of Evesham Township, were surprised when they heard about the civilians' flying to Tyndall. He had lunch last week with Evesham Mayor Randy Brown.

"It's an opportunity to see what we do," said Basnett, a lieutenant in the state Department of Corrections, who will run heavy equipment to repair runways in Iraq.

After lunch, the employers saw a mine-resistant armored vehicle and robotic bomb-disposal device. They also saw airmen perform a mock rescue, carpentry work, water purification, and other duties connected to the construction of bases.

Employers know that their inconvenience is "minuscule . . . compared to the hardship on families of Guard and Reserve members who have seen multiple deployments," Biddle said.

Some companies make up the pay difference when a service member earns less from the military during deployment. And most follow the law by returning workers to their old jobs.

"We've been fortunate in New Jersey that our employers have been and continue to be, for the most part, supportive," said Venticinque, who traveled to Tyndall.

The Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve is a network of more than 4,000 volunteers nationwide. The agency's ombudsman helps resolve problems between service members and employers. Disputes that can't be resolved are referred to the U.S. Labor Department and sometimes to the U.S. Department of Justice.

The Bosslift "is great for employers. I'm ecstatic that they've come down," said the 108th's Lt. Col. Paul E. Novello, a Jackson Township resident who is a part-time sales associate at Eastern Mountain Sports in Princeton.

His boss, store manager Matt D'Angelo, 36, of Greenwich, Conn., said the trip was important for employers and for employees.

"We got to see what they do when they're overseas, and they got to see how supportive we are," he said, "that all they have done for the country is appreciated."

Contact staff writer Edward Colimore at 856-779-3833 or ecolimore@phillynews.com.