In law enforcement, there isn't much time for celebration, even if it is your graduation day.

After making the rounds of hugs and handshakes with family and friends Friday, Billings Police Department Officer Joseph Dickerson looked over to his future bosses for their congratulations.

He didn't get just a handshake. Dickerson, 30, was also handed his work schedule for the week.

He starts early Monday morning.

After 12 weeks of intense police training at the Montana Law Enforcement Academy in Helena, Dickerson and his 35 classmates from around the state have graduated and are about to embark on their first days as on-duty police officers.

The chance to patrol the streets didn't come without a price. The officers had to forfeit time with their spouses and children, undergo a rigorous physical fitness program and learn how to cope with people in dangerous situations.

"I'm just excited to start the job, get out there and just do it," Dickerson said. "It feels good to finally be done."

Pride and honor were visible on the faces of the officers graduating, but despite the feeling of achievement, the ceremony was clouded by the dangerous — and potentially deadly — career ahead.

Montana Highway Patrol Trooper David DeLaittre, 23, was shot and killed outside Three Forks on Dec. 1. He was honored by several speakers at Friday's ceremony.

"Given the past 10 days, I can't look at you or your families without thinking of Trooper David DeLaittre," said Montana Attorney General Steve Bullock. "You could be anything in the world you wanted to be, but you became a peace officer.

"It's a deliberate choice someone waits months or even years until they can cross the steps of the academy."

DeLaittre's death was a reminder of the risks that come with the job.

"We were all aware of the risk prior to coming here, but it's a reminder of the things at stake and the risks of being in law enforcement," Dickerson said.

Warren Hiebert, Gallatin County Sheriff's Office chaplain, spoke to the graduates and their families at an emotional-survival class prior to Friday's graduation ceremonies.

The divorce rate in law enforcement is 80 percent, Hiebert said, which he attributes to the stress officers experience daily.

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"It's the things you are observing every day," Hiebert said. "I've seen over 100 suicides, 500 critical incident deaths. ... It changes you. I talk to people who took my class, and a year later they say the man I was dating, engaged to or married to is not the same man I am married to now."

Hiebert offered suggestions on how to keep a relationship intact. It comes down to an officer's attitude and a dedication to honest communication.

Officers also should feel good about their career choice, he said.

"Know that you are of great value and are doing great work," Hiebert said. "I don't care if it's just a first-grader who thinks I'm a great officer. You do the job because you love what you do, because you answer the call."

Although law enforcement was not Dickerson's first career choice, it was always something he thought about.

His dad always figured he'd be a pilot, but with the economy the way it is, Dickerson had to choose the career that had job opportunity.

"When he was young, he said the same thing as all the kids; I want to be a pilot, a police officer," Roy Dickerson said. "I didn't discourage his choice. When you are a kid, you see the TV shows that are all exciting.

"You don't see the ugliness that goes with it. It's not all glory and glamor. ... But now he's not a kid. He's 30 years old. I'm pretty sure he knows what he wants to do."

Roy and his wife, Kay, drove from Roundup to attend Friday's graduation ceremonies, along with other family and friends.

While Kay is proud of Dickerson, she said her first concern always will be her son's safety.

"As a mother, I have concern for his safety and the other Billings police officers," she said. "My prayers will be with him every day he is out on duty."

Even though the academy is behind him, Dickerson still has 3½ months of training to complete with field training officers working different shifts. The officer will rate Dickerson's progress each day.

Dickerson will start his training on days, but he and BPD's two other newly graduated officers, Cory Kirkpatrick and Jeremy Boeckel, will most likely be working nights once they starts patrolling solo.

"They probably won't see much daylight for a few years," Chief Rich St. John said after the ceremony.

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