A clerk’s duty and service: U.S. Army vet flourishes at Berrien County Courthouse

Berrien County Court Clerk Rebecca Payne is this week’s Q&A interviewee. She served in the Iraq War and received a Purple Heart after a suicide bomber detonated himself near her. (Don Campbell | HP staff)

Berrien County Court Clerk Rebecca Payne is this week’s Q&A interviewee. She served in the Iraq War and received a Purple Heart after a suicide bomber detonated himself near her. (Don Campbell | HP staff)

By Tony Wittkowski | Business Reporter | The Herald-Palladium

ST. JOSEPH – Iraq War veteran Rebecca Payne almost died in a suicide bomber attack 10 years ago.

Payne, who graduated from River Valley High School in Three Oaks and lives in Lakeside, earned degrees from Lake Michigan College and Western Michigan University before receiving a law degree from Thomas Cooley Law School in 2001.

She joined the U.S. Army in 2003 and was deployed to Iraq, where she survived an IED attack but lost some hearing. In August 2005, a suicide bomber detonated himself about 4 feet from Payne from inside a dining facility. Her injures were severe.

After some time at home, Payne returned to her law background and now works at the Berrien County Courthouse as a court clerk for Trial Court Judge Arthur Cotter.

Staff Writer Tony Wittkowski sat down with Payne to talk about her job at the courthouse and her time in Iraq.

What does your job as a court clerk entail?

I work for Judge Cotter in the courtroom. I’m the person that gets to file after the judge is done, so I enter the sentencing. If another court date is needed I get that for the judge and I fill out all the paperwork for the file as that happens.

When I’m not in the courtroom, I work in the clerk’s office, processing files and docketing criminal paperwork coming in.

What do you like most about working at the county courthouse?

I love going to court. I just like to see what’s going on with the defendants, the attorneys. I like that whole interaction.

I understand you fought in the Iraq War. When you returned home, how did you make the transition to the courthouse?

Actually, when I first got out of the Army in 2006, I went to work at the Four Winds Casino in New Buffalo for six years. I was in surveillance.

My goal was to get into the FBI, so I was hoping to get some surveillance experience and get in that route. Unfortunately, I found out they were hiring internally, so I thought I should get back into the legal field since I do have a law degree.

How did you receive your Purple Heart?

The second explosion I was in was at a police headquarters. I was in charge of starting a booking station. We were waiting for (the Iraqis) to get to work because they always showed up a little bit later.

When we went to get something to eat, that was where I was in the dining facility and the suicide bomber came in, detonated himself about four feet away from where I was sitting.

What happened as a result of that?

I didn’t know I was injured at first. I was close enough that it cauterized all my wounds. I knew my face was burned, my hair was burned and I knew I was hit by stuff, but I just thought it was rocks. It wasn’t until they loaded me into the ambulance that I knew how injured I was.

I had shrapnel go into my abdomen and my liver was lacerated. A big piece of shrapnel went into my leg that stopped just at the bone. I had shrapnel go into various other spots in my leg, arms, chest, neck, my face, my head. As a result, I had eight surgeries on my abdomen.

I got three more surgeries – one on my throat, one to remove a piece of shrapnel from my chest and ear surgery because both my ears were ruptured.

What’s the recovery process been like?

Good for the most part. I’m a pretty positive person. When I was at Walter Reed (Hospital) it gave me a good idea of what could have happened. They had an entire ward of young men that have lost limbs and they are just beginning their lives. I’m very lucky.

Where do you see yourself in five years?

I don’t know. Things have changed a little bit. I had planned on going into the FBI. I would like to take the bar exam, but I’m not sure if I want to practice law. I want to be a famous writer. I’ve been told numerous times I should write a story about what happened to me.

Contact Tony Wittkowski at twittkowski@thehp.com or (269) 932-0358. Follow him on Twitter @tonywittkowski.

(Author’s Note: This article was originally published on June 15, 2015)


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