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For Franconas, military family cause hits home

Jacque Francona with son, Nick, a Marine.

While it was all imploding, Jacque and Terry Francona doubtless had more on their minds than the crash landing of the 2011 Red Sox season.

Their only son, Nick, was commanding a sniper platoon in Afghanistan. Their son-in-law - Michael Rice, Nick’s best friend in the Marines - was dismantling homemade bombs in Afghanistan. And their youngest, Jamie, a senior at Brookline High School, has been considering applying to the US Naval Academy.

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“Absolutely, it’s been very unsettling for all of us,’’ says Jacque (pronounced “Jackie’’) Francona, 51.

She and her husband are reportedly separated, but she makes it clear before an interview that she won’t talk about either her marriage or the Red Sox. “I am currently married,’’ is all she will say. Terry Francona, who is out of state, could not be reached for comment.

What Jacque Francona wants to talk about is the Home Base program, a nonprofit organization that treats and supports veterans and their families affected by “the invisible wounds of war’’: post-traumatic stress disorder, combat stress, depression, and traumatic brain injuries.

Today, she will speak at Northeastern University to school nurses as part of her volunteer work Home Base, a joint program of the Red Sox Foundation and Massachusetts General Hospital. Many children and siblings of deployed service members suffer their loved one’s absence in silence, she says, and she wants to tell school nurses what the psychological impact is on the family, and how they can help.

“One of the things I particularly love about the program is that they treat the whole family,’’ Francona says.

Home Base, founded two years ago, provides services to veterans with deployment and combat-related stress, and outreach and counseling to their families. According to Home Base, one in three veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan will suffer from PTSD, depression, or traumatic brain injury. Since the wars began, more than 15,000 men and women in Massachusetts have been deployed.

President Obama has announced that he is bringing the troops in Iraq home by the end of the year, and a spokesman for Home Base notes that in the coming year 1.4 million service members will return as the wars wind down, and that many of them will need services.

Nick Francona returned from Afghanistan in mid-October, to 29 Palms, a Marine base in California. His mother was there to greet him.

“It was great to see his face,’’ she says. “He looked thin but fit.’’

On Saturday, Nick, 26, arrived home in Brookline for two weeks before returning to his California base. His sister Leah, 21, has moved home from Knoxville, Tenn., to stay with her family while her husband is at war. They were married in January, and he was deployed in June. He is due to come home in February.

Nick Francona’s commitment to the Marines is over in a year. He says he will decide in the next few months whether to stay in the military or attend graduate school.

Why did he join in the first place? “Because our nation is at war and I am not all right with someone going in my place,’’ he says in an e-mail.

He also writes about what his service has taught him. “I learned that you need to keep things in perspective. For example, losing money in the stock market or your 401(k) is really not that bad of a day compared to what some people are going through. Perhaps most of all, I learned that the best and brightest of America do not come from Ivy League schools or Wall Street but are often teenagers with a sense of purpose and courage far beyond their years.’’

Though Jacque Francona has been involved in projects at her children’s schools, in the Brookline community, and for the Red Sox Foundation, she has kept a low profile since moving here in 2004, when Terry was named Red Sox manager. She’s speaking up now to publicize Home Base.

“The mission speaks to my heart because I have a nursing background, a son in the military, and the baseball thing,’’ says Francona. “I want to say to other moms there is help for families of service members. They’re not alone.’’

She has helped the organization plan a statewide conference, and helped the Red Sox Foundation plan and host a softball game at Fenway Park for teenage children of deployed National Guard parents. In August, she was involved in another event for Home Base families, where children, parents, and grandparents batted, ran bases, and toured the park.

Francona talks about her four children with obvious pride (Alyssa, 24, works at Boston College). Nick was a senior at the University of Pennsylvania when he called home that spring and shocked his parents by telling them he’d decided to turn down a Wall Street job offer and join the military.

“We never tried to talk him out of it at all,’’ says his mother. “With kids, you give them the education, you give them the wings, and they make their decision.’’

In his first couple of months of deployment, he was able to talk to his parents occasionally via satellite phone. Once, she could heard gunshots and asked him what was going on. “Oh, Mom, don’t worry about that. It’s like a mile away,’’ he replied.

Kathy Clair-Hayes, a social worker at Home Base, has worked closely with Jacque Francona to raise awareness among military families of the programs offered, such as support groups for parents and a new one for siblings.

Military families have an instant bond with one another, but outsiders often do not understand the stress they are under, she says. They may make political arguments against the wars, she says, and say thoughtless things such as: “I hope your son comes back in one piece.’’

With Francona and the Red Sox connection, “it’s like a bridge for people,’’ says Clair-Hayes. “It helps destigmatize seeking help.’’

The Franconas are planning to have a low-key celebration for Nick, while thinking of the other vet in the family, Leah’s husband.

“For us, as happy as we are for Nick to be home, we still have Michael in harm’s way,’’ Francona says. “So that still tempers our excitement.’’

Bella English can be reached at english@globe.com.
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