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Maine mass shooter’s family says his ‘brain was hijacked’ by military service-related injuries

The family of an Army reservist who carried out a deadly shooting in Maine told a state commission Thursday that he suffered a “severe” head injury related to his service as a training instructor. hand grenade training, and that the army had begun a “psychological autopsy”. ” of his life.

Robert Card was found dead by suicide after killing 18 people at a Lewiston bowling alley and bar in October. His family later donated his brain to the Boston University CTE Center, which said in March that there was “evidence” of head trauma and that its findings were consistent with previous studies on the effects of blast injuries.

“We discovered that Robbie suffered from severe head trauma,” James Herling, the gunman’s brother-in-law, told an independent commission that has been investigating the shooting since late November and investigating whether enough was done to prevent the massacre. .

Family members said researchers who studied his brain told them it was “one of the worst” cases they had seen, even compared to military personnel who served in Afghanistan and in Iraq.

Image: James Herling
Nicole Herling
James Herling pauses his testimony Thursday while recalling the moment he realized the shooter was his brother-in-law. Nicole Herling, the shooter’s sister, cries on her husband’s shoulder. Robert F. Bukaty / AP

But the 40-year-old shooter “was not an active soldier, he was a reservist,” Herling said, adding that “his brain was not healthy and no one knew.”

“My brother-in-law was not that man – his brain was hijacked,” he said during his testimony, during which he fought back tears several times.

Nicole Herling, the shooter’s sister and Herling’s wife, told the commission that she began discussions last week with a forensic psychologist at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, one of the major military hospitals, to better understand his brother’s background and potentially find role models who could help others.

A Walter Reed spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Nicole Herling said she noticed a change in her brother’s behavior in the months leading up to the shooting, but believed he posed more of a threat to himself than to others because he was becoming paranoid that the People, especially at his job at a recycling center, spoke negatively. from him. The shooter had pushed his family away, according to his relatives.

“In my wildest dreams, I could never have imagined the act he committed,” Nicole Herling told the commission.

“I wish I had done everything in my power to get him the help he needed,” Herling said.

She added: “He didn’t believe me when I said he was sick, not crazy.”

Nicole Herling testifies Thursday.Robert F. Bukaty / AP

The shooter was an Army reservist for two decades and a longtime instructor for hand grenade training. Family members said they tried to contact the military because of concerns about his mental health last year and his access to weapons, but their calls went unreturned or unanswered.

The family learned in July that he had been hospitalized in a psychiatric unit for two weeks after shoving another reservist and isolating himself in a motel room during training in New York. Upon his release, the military barred him from accessing weapons while on duty. But there was another warning sign that he might pose a danger when a fellow reservist and former roommate texted an Army supervisor a month before the carnage, writing: “I believe he’s going to break down and do a mass shooting.”

In March, the independent commission’s interim report found that a Sagadahoc County Sheriff’s Office sergeant could have done more to seize the shooter’s firearms and had enough reason to issue the “yellow flag” law. of the state, which allows law enforcement to confiscate a person’s firearm if they are believed to pose a threat to themselves or others.

At a hearing in March, military officials placed some of the blame on local law enforcement. Army Staff Sgt. Matthew Noyes said “the onus was on” those agencies to do something to access the shooter’s weapons from his home since he was no longer on base. But Nicole Herling said Thursday that her testimony was “a call to action” for the Defense Department. to better address the problem that low intensity explosions can have on soldiers.

“Here I brought the helmet intended to protect my brother’s brain,” she said, showing the commission the military helmet. “To the Ministry of Defense: it failed. It failed.”

Nicole Herling stressed that the findings of her brother’s head trauma do not fully explain his actions and that a brain injury does not mean someone is more likely to commit such violence. Boston University researchers said they found no evidence that the shooter suffered from chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, a degenerative brain disease associated with behavioral and cognitive problems linked to repeated head trauma.

But the shooter’s sister said she hopes the military will use her case to help train others to recognize the signs and symptoms of head trauma.

Her brother’s “fear of appearing mentally unstable” likely exacerbated his condition,” she added.

Dr. James Stone, an imaging expert at UVA Health who was previously enlisted by NATO to help develop guidelines to prevent serious brain injuries in service members, told NBC News in March that “we need to, as soon as possible, answer the question of how much is too much when it comes to safe levels” of exposure to low-intensity explosions.

The Army said Thursday it is “committed to understanding how brain health is affected,” and that soldiers can receive treatment even if there is not “a single identifiable event” linked to an injury perceived.

Starting next June, “basic cognitive assessments will be conducted on trainees during initial training and repeated at least every five years to identify changes in their cognitive abilities,” the army spokesperson said. , Bryce Dubee, in an email. “Additionally, the Army is developing and evaluating enhanced protective equipment to minimize blast exposure.”

The Army inspector general’s independent review of the Lewiston shooter’s actions before the massacre is ongoing, Dubee added.

At Thursday’s emotional hearing, commissioners thanked members of the shooter’s family for speaking openly about their struggles. Herling said he has the names of all the shooting victims on a wall in his family’s home “as a constant reminder.”

Cara Lamb, the shooter’s ex-wife who shared a son with him, testified that the two men were not close and that she was unable to identify the motive for his actions.

“We could ask a million whys for the rest of our lives and never have a good enough answer,” she said.

But, Lamb said, she hopes that whatever directive comes from the commission’s final report will ensure that people facing mental health crises are helped.

“I don’t want to point the finger at any of them and say it’s their fault,” she said of the military, law enforcement and others who interacted with the shooter , “because I firmly believe that it is all of our faults, from this point forward.

“I’m his ex-wife. He wasn’t a fan of me,” Lamb said. “But it’s my fault too.”

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