Following his calling

Bill Graham talked about his recent work in Iraq. Graham spent a year in Iraq training members of the Commission on Public Integrity, the Iraqi version of the FBI. Earlier this month, Graham was awarded the South Carolina Law Enforcement Officers' Association Lifetime Achievement Award.
Bill Graham talked about his recent work in Iraq. Graham spent a year in Iraq training members of the Commission on Public Integrity, the Iraqi version of the FBI. Earlier this month, Graham was awarded the South Carolina Law Enforcement Officers' Association Lifetime Achievement Award.

CHESTER -- Two months ago, Bill Graham came home to Chester from Iraq, where surprise can mean death.

But on the night of July 18, the 59-year-old who just spent a year training the Iraqi version of the FBI, was pleasantly caught off guard.

A shocked Graham received the South Carolina Law Enforcement Officers' Association Lifetime Achievement Award at a banquet in Charleston, the city where his daughter was married July 21. The wedding he knew about, but the award was a surprise.

The award and the wedding are a pleasant break from what has been a tough a year on the Graham family -- a year where Bill lived amid the sounds of planes and bombs while his wife nervously waited at home.

With a law enforcement career that spans 33 years, Bill Graham had been away from home before. The Chester native worked his way up from a local sheriff's deputy to a captain in the State Law Enforcement Division.

He's had nights where his phone would ring, he would kiss his wife, Debbie, goodbye and head out for several days to work on a case. He'd also received explosives training in England and Israel. Those sessions lasted weeks.

But Iraq was different.

"I felt like I held my breath for a year," Debbie Graham said. "There were times he'd call and say, 'You're getting ready to hear something on the news. I'm OK.'"

She compulsively followed the media coverage of Iraq. She only limited herself at night because she didn't want frightening dreams.

Still, she knew her husband wanted to be there.

About a month before retiring from SLED, he and his wife talked about the overseas work. He had been recruited by a company with a U.S. Department of Justice contract that wanted him to train Iraqis in the Commission on Public Integrity, their version of the FBI.

"If I was going to make a difference," he said, "this was the way to do it."

"So you're feeling called to do that?" Debbie Graham said she asked her husband. "He said, 'Yes.' ... I knew if he felt called to do it, he had to go do it."

Bill Graham left for Iraq two days after he retired.

Graham has been a bomb technician for 23 years. A seasoned criminal investigator, he's also worked homicides, drug cases and anything else in between.

But Iraq was different.

There, he was part of a group of 16 instructors charged with training Iraqis to become law enforcement agents. The Iraqis who would become investigators were lawyers. Those who weren't lawyers were trained for security detail.

Graham taught basic and advanced courses, covering such topics as interrogation, improvised explosive device recognition, witness interviews and fingerprinting.

He helped the CPI develop policies and procedures and set up the agency's first crime scene investigation unit. He taught Iraqis to handle weapons, including AK-47s and Remington shotguns.

"We created a lot of these courses from ground zero," he said.

During his work, Graham developed a respect for the Iraqi agents. The CPI program has been in place for a few years, he said, and in that time, more than 100 investigators were murdered.

Insurgents kill Iraqis identified as government workers. Graham once worked with young woman who translated documents for the CPI. One night, she left to go home and never returned. Her tortured body was later found under a bridge.

"We never started a five-week basic course where we didn't expect to lose at least one of them," he said of the Iraqi trainees.

Graham also dealt with his own hazards.

"For a solid year," he said, "there was not a single day I didn't hear a bomb go off. Some days, there would be 30."

Graham lived in a tiny trailer surrounded by sandbags. Because Graham's bedtime coincided with his wife's lunch hour, the two would often talk via Web cameras. Through the Web cam, his wife could see the trailer shaking and hear the planes overhead.

If sand storms and rocket attacks made communication impossible, they tried until they could get through. The couple sent cards to each other every few days, and Debbie ordered Bill tubs of his beloved Necco Wafers.

In January, Bill Graham's 89-year-old mother died. Two days before her death, she became unresponsive. Knowing her time was limited, Debbie called Bill, and put the phone near his mother's ear.

"This is your baby boy," he told her.

Suddenly, Graham's mother acted as though she were trying to open her eyes, although she could only manage to lift her eyebrows. She took two breaths and died while Graham was still on the phone.

"It's like she was waiting to hear from Bill," Debbie Graham said.

Graham was allowed to come home for about two weeks at Thanksgiving. He couldn't return until May 24, when Debbie Graham went to Charlotte-Douglas International Airport wearing a yellow sweater and carrying yellow balloons. She placed a "Welcome Home" sign on their house and planned a lasagna dinner.

At the airport, she waited at the bottom of an escalator.

After their embrace, a guy Graham met on the flight approached them.

"I just want to see your wife's face," he said.

"You don't know me," he told Debbie Graham, "but your husband had a smile on his face ever since he left Chicago."

When asked why he went to Iraq, Graham talks about wanting to cap off his law enforcement career, assist a fledgling democracy and give Iraqis an opportunity to succeed.

But the story he says sums his up trip is about an Iraqi named Rod.

Graham worked closely with Rod, teaching him techniques he hoped Rod would teach other Iraqis. When Graham was leaving, he told Rod he was going home.

"No, you'll never leave Iraq," Rod said.

Graham tried to explain that his year was over and he was going to see his family, but Rod was adamant.

"You're my teacher," he said. "You'll always be in my heart."