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Soldier, editors recall work, friendship of slain journalist

John Villegas is still reeling from the news that James Foley is dead.

Villegas, 47, of East Chicago, served in Iraq with the Indiana National Guard’s 76th Infantry Brigade Combat Team in 2008. Foley was embedded with the team as a Post-Tribune correspondent, and the two became friends during the year they spent together.

Foley, 40, a graduate of Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, was killed by Islamic State militants. A video of his death by beheading was released Tuesday; he had been missing since November 2012 while freelancing in northern Syria.

Villegas learned Tuesday of Foley’s death from one of his fellow soldiers.

“I was in tears,” he said, adding he and Foley were in regular contact after he finished duty in Iraq. The two saw each other once or twice a year, with Foley stopping by the Euclid Tap, one of two East Chicago bars Villegas owns.

He last saw Foley at the end of 2011, shortly before Foley left for Syria. Before that, Foley often called Villegas and other soldiers from the 76th to see how they were doing.

“He knew what we were going through because he was right there with us,” Villegas said. “This was a good man.”

Foley had no trouble going out with Villegas and his fellow soldiers when they were on combat missions, even though he didn’t have the same protective gear. Foley, Villegas said, “had more balls than we did.”

“He was out there shooting his camera while we were shooting guns,” he said. “He was just there to tell the truth.”

Former Post-Tribune Executive Editor Paulette Haddix hired Foley to work for the paper as a correspondent in Iraq.

“He wanted to go to Iraq, so he was essentially cold-calling newspapers and he found a receptive ear at the Post-Tribune,” she recalled Thursday, adding she didn’t know which other papers he might have called.

He was the second Post-Tribune journalist to die during wartime. Photographer John Bushemi worked for the paper for five years before enlisting in the U.S. Army during World War II, and became an Army photographer. He was killed in 1944.

Foley offered to embed himself with the 76th and write for the Post-Tribune.

“He wasn’t expecting us to cover his expenses or anything,” Haddix said, adding Foley wanted the experience of covering a war. “He sounded like an eager young man, so I was happy to give him the experience.”