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Rocky Payne

A Utah soldier was killed Wednesday in a vehicle explosion in Baghdad while assisting U.S. forces in escorting mail convoys through the area.

The soldier was identified as Spec. 4 Rocky Payne, 26, of Howell, Box Elder County. He was assigned to the 497th Transportation Company based out of Ft. Lewis, Wash.

Payne joined the Marines after graduating from Bear River High School in Tremonton. As a Marine, he served more than a year of his four-year term in Iraq, working with heavy machinery. He was home for a short time, and when he couldn't find employment, he joined the Army in 2004. He was then sent to Iraq for a second time.

Family members are unclear on the details of Payne's death but said they expect to learn more when an investigation of the incident is completed sometime next week.

Randall Payne of Tremonton is one of Payne's four brothers. He described his youngest brother as a shy but playful and committed man who loved heavy machinery and learning how things worked. He said that even as a youth Payne had dreams of driving tanks.

He said he prayed for his brother's safe return but knew that anything could happen amid the volatility of the ongoing efforts in Iraq.

"We knew it was a possibility, and so did he," he said.

Payne became the 11th Utahn to die in Iraq since the start of the war in March 2003.

In a recent letter that he wrote to the bishop and members of his home LDS ward, Payne said he had been assisting with the protection of mail-carriers and counted every minute of safety as a blessing.

He wrote, "I have never been as close to God in my entire life as I am out here. . . . I thank God and his Son for every minute I am here and alive to witness the tests and tribulations He's put here for us."

He called his experience in Iraq an "eye-opener."

Payne also thanked the community for the impact it had in shaping his life and character.

"It seemed like he enjoyed being there and that he really liked the military," said Leon Kotter, Payne's bishop. He said Payne was active in sports and Scouting and in his church service.

The small town of approximately 237, along with Tremonton, has a long tradition of supporting military men and women. Kotter said yellow ribbons are scattered throughout the valley, and an American Legion flag, placed by a neighbor, now flies outside Payne's Howell home.

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"We're still in shock and denial," Randall Payne said. "He's our youngest brother and my mother's baby. My father feels it was his duty, but we all understood it was a risk."

Payne's parents, Dennis and Marie Payne, spend the winter months living in Nevada but are expected to arrive in Howell sometime today. Payne's father also served in the Army several years ago. After their arrival, the military will provide the family with more information and assist in the memorial service.

Payne is expected to be buried in the Howell City Cemetery sometime in the next two weeks.

Contributing: Associated Press

E-mail: wleonard@desnews.com