Family: Army frustrated efforts to get reservist help before shooting

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AUGUSTA, Maine — The sister and brother-in-law of an Army reservist responsible for killing 18 people in Maine gave an emotional apology for the deadly rampage on Thursday, and said Army officials frustrated their efforts to get him mental health care before the shooting.

Hearing public testimony from shooter Robert Card’s family for the first time, an independent commission investigating the mass shooting in Lewiston opened with Card’s sister, Nicole Herling, and her husband James Herling, who said they struggled for months to get help as his brother-in-law’s mental health declined.

“Our family will never forget your names,” Herling said, adding that pictures of the victims are on the walls of his family home. “There is no way to express the sorrow that we feel,” he added.

Putting his head in his hands, and with his wife leaning into shoulder, James Herling became emotional as he described how Card became increasingly paranoid. Facing the panel of commissioners, the family began sobbing as Herling recalled the moment when the couple figured out who the shooter was.

The 40-year-old Card, an Army reservist with a history of mental health troubles, committed the deadliest shooting in Maine history, opening fire with an assault rifle inside a bowling alley and a bar and grill in Lewiston in October. The commission has been meeting for months, hearing from police, victims and their families, and other Army reservists.

Card’s family had kept a low profile before the hearing, other than releasing a statement in March expressing deep sorrow over the shooting, and disclosing an analysis of Card’s brain tissue that showed evidence of traumatic brain injuries. Card had trained others in the use of hand grenades, and the family blamed that exposure for his mental decline.

On Thursday, James Herling expressed frustration with the military, law enforcement and the media, and he singled out the Army Reserves for declining to answer the phone or return calls before the shooting.

Nicole Herling said military personnel deserve better protections: “It’s unjust to continue training with explosions and sonic booms until there are protective gear and standards ensuring the safety of all of our soldier’s brains.”

“This is not an excuse for the behavior or acts that Robbie committed,” James Herling testified. “It was a wrongful act of evil. My brother in law was not this man. His brain was hijacked.”

The Army said previously that Card’s brain injury “underscored the Army’s need to do all it can to protect soldiers against blast-induced injury.” As for its actions related to the tragedy, the Army previously urged people not to jump to conclusions until its own investigation and an independent probe by the Army inspector general are completed.

Card, 40, was found dead from a self-inflicted gunshot wound after an extensive search. In the aftermath, the legislature passed new gun laws for Maine, a state with a long tradition of firearms ownership. Among other things, they bolstered the state’s “yellow flag” law, criminalized the transfer of guns to prohibited people and expanded funding for mental health crisis care.

Relatives had warned police that Card had grown paranoid and that they were concerned about his access to guns. Other reservists also witnessed his mental health deterioration, to the point that he was hospitalized for two weeks during training last summer. One of the reservists, Sean Hodgson, told superiors on Sept. 15: “I believe he’s going to snap and do a mass shooting.”

The commission was also scheduled to hear from an official from the Army Reserve Psychological Health Program on Thursday, but that appearance was postponed. Commission chair Daniel Wathen thanked Card’s family members for testifying.

“The spotlight you’ve been placed in is not something you wanted,” Wathen said.

The commission issued an interim report in March saying law enforcement should have seized Card’s guns and put him in protective custody based on these warnings, using the existing yellow flag law. A full report is due this summer.

Police testified that the family had agreed to remove Card’s guns, but the commission said that leaving this to his family “was an abdication of law enforcement’s responsibility.”

Sharp reported from Portland, Maine.

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