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Family members of Lewiston shooter call for more action on mental health, traumatic brain injuries

Relatives of the man responsible for the mass shootings in Lewiston, Maine, last October blame themselves for not doing more to stop him. And in emotional testimony before the commission investigating the tragedy, they also called on law enforcement, the media, the Army and others to do better in the future.

Chief among those calls is for better access to mental health treatment and protections from traumatic brain injuries for soldiers who are exposed to blasts and sonic booms during training.

Nicole and James Herling, the sister and brother-in-law of Robert Card II, broke down as they began their testimony by apologizing to the victims of the shootings that killed 18 and injured more than a dozen others. It was their second meeting with the commission but the first time in public.

"Our family will never forget your names," James Herling said choking up. "And the legacy they have left. Each of your names are on our wall at our homes as a constant reminder."

James Herling said the family is familiar with the victims' stories and will use them to advocate for change on several fronts.

Card was a longtime hand grenade instructor in the Army Reserves who was exposed to hundreds of low level blasts. A post mortem analysis of his brain showed evidence of traumatic brain injury which may have contributed to his behavioral changes. And, with Card's Army helmet sitting on the table nearby, Herling said he hopes the commission will find that the DOD needs to enhance protections for soldiers.

"This is not an excuse for the behavior and actions that Robbie committed. It was a wrongful act of evil. My brother-in-law was not this man. His brain was hijacked," Herling said.

Family members said Card's declining mental health did not become obvious until early last year when he started behaving erratically and telling family members that people around him were calling him a pedophile. Nicole Herling said she spent hours on the phone trying unsuccessfully to reach someone in the Army Reserves and then at Veterans Affairs even as her brother pushed her and other family members away.

"Despite exhaustive, online searches I couldn't find clear information on where to report my concerns. The information I did come across was outdated and despite leaving numerous voicemails, none were returned," she said.

Herling said she's unsure if the VA's crisis helpline is equipped to handle crises like the one her family experienced but she says such support would be invaluable in the future. And while commission members said the family was not responsible for Card's actions on October 25th, Herling took personal responsibility for what she now describes as her own "call to action."

"I wish I had done everything in power to get him the help he needed. My pride prevented me from seeking help after seeking rejection," she said.

Specifically, Herling said she was advised by a VA crisis worker not to tell her brother's command about his delusions about being gay or a pedophile because he might face harassment or mistreatment in return.

Card's ex-wife, Cara Lamb, said she also felt confused about the best way to report her concerns.

"I'm not sure that we have an appropriate place for those inappropriate questions," she said.

Lamb was first alerted by her then 17-year-old son, Colby, about Card's erratic behavior. Colby told her he no longer felt safe going to his father's house for visits. She wasn't sure what was the best way to protect him. So she and Colby went to a school resource officer last May. Still, she worried about how Card might react if he found out. Her wish is that the next time somebody like her ex-husband needs help, they get it.

"What's the answer gonna be the next time? What is going to be said to them? Because what was said to us is, 'there's only so much you can do,'" she said.

Lamb said the reason for that explanation was because Card hadn't threatened them, physically harmed them or waved a gun at them. And yet, Lamb said, her son's concerns were valid.

Family members said law enforcement agencies and the Army should have shared more information with each other about the bits and pieces they knew about Robert Card who spent two weeks in a New York psychiatric hospital last summer.

Despite the hell the family has endured with the onslaught of media attention and the guilt they feel, Katie Card, Robert's sister-in-law, says she's grateful for the kindness that was showed them by friends and co-workers and others in the community.

"There were meals for months that arrived at our door and fed our children when I couldn't do it myself and it gave us the strength to keep going," she said.

Katie Card said she did not know that Card's guns were supposed to be removed from his home when he was discharged from the hospital. She said wants people to understand that the reason her husband, Ryan, isn't present for the hearings isn't because he doesn't think it's important but because he blames himself.

This story is part of an ongoing collaboration with FRONTLINE (PBS) and the Portland Press Herald that includes an upcoming documentary. It is supported through FRONTLINE’s Local Journalism Initiative, which is funded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.