A marine who criticised senior officers over the US troop withdrawal from Afghanistan in viral videos has pleaded guilty to several charges in the hope of getting an honourable discharge and possibly keep some military benefits.
Lt Col Stuart Scheller’s court-martial took place on Thursday at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina. He pled guilty to all charges after defying a gag order to criticize the US military’s chaotic withdrawal of Afghanistan, which left 13 Americans dead.
He reportedly told the court his life was “spiralling” after his wife left him and he had lost a small business when he made videos criticizing senior military leadership.
“My life was spiralling at this time. I was receiving messages that I was going to be court-martialed because of my statements,” he said, according to The Daily Mail.
“My wife had left me and I had a small business taken from me,” he reportedly added.
Lt Col Scheller pled guilty to all six misdemeanour charges of disrespect toward superior commissioned officers, willfully disobeying a superior commissioned officer, dereliction in the performance of duties, contempt toward officials, failure to obey order or regulation, and conduct unbecoming an officer and a gentleman.
The viral video
After a suicide bombing killed 13 US service members and about 170 Afghans at the Kabul Airport on 26 August, Lt Col Scheller posted a video to Facebook and LinkedIn wearing his uniform, lambasting military leadership for not admitting that any mistakes had been made during the troop withdrawal.
One of Lt Col Scheller’s lawyers, Tim Parlatore, told The Washington Post that he couldn’t reveal details of any pretrial agreement as some issues are “still up in the air”.
The attorney added that the case had started because Lt Col Scheller was asking for others to take responsibility and that it would “make him a hypocrite” if he didn’t take responsibility for what he had done.
Lt Col Scheller is trying to avoid going to prison and hopes to get an honourable discharge or a general discharge under honourable conditions.
“Our hope is for him to get a letter of reprimand, and no more,” Mr Parlatore told The Post.
Coffee or Die Magazine was the first outlet to report on the possibility of a plea deal.
The political fallout
Lt Col Scheller has become embroiled in partisan politics as he’s been boosted by conservatives critical of President Joe Biden’s and the military’s decisions and actions in Afghanistan.
Dozens of Republicans sent a letter in late September demanding that he be released from pretrial confinement, and his case has been discussed frequently in conservative media.
Retired Chief Petty Officer Edward Gallagher, a former client of Mr Parlatore, who was acquitted of an alleged murder in Iraq in 2019, has also spoken about the case.
But Lt Col Scheller also criticised Republicans, writing on Facebook on 25 September that “everyone” had told him to “kiss the ring” of former President Donald Trump to get his help, but that he had declined to do so, adding that he hated how Mr Trump had “divided the country”.
“Tell your son to stop tweeting about me,” Lt Col Scheller wrote, referring to Donald Trump Jr. “Your whole family knows nothing about US or our sacrifices. I could never work with you.”
Lt Col Scheller spent 17 years as an infantry officer and has served in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Shortly after the ISIS-K suicide bombing on 26 August at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul that disrupted a chaotic international evacuation effort, Lt Col Scheller posted his first video. The airlift in the end managed to facilitate the removal of 120,000 people, but some US citizens and Afghan allies remain in Afghanistan that is now under Taliban rule.
The marine announced his name and rank in the video and said he knew one of the people killed in the terror attack. He noted that he was aware that he had “a lot to lose” by posting the video because he was close to getting his full military retirement, but added that risking his personal finances afforded him a moral high ground.
“People are upset because their senior leaders let them down, and none of them are raising their hands and accepting accountability or saying, ‘We messed this up,’” he said.
He lost his position as the commander of the Advanced Infantry Training Battalion at Camp Lejeune. Marine Corps spokesperson Major Jim Stenger said at the time that “there is a forum in which Marine leaders can address their disagreements with the chain of command, but it’s not social media”.
Lt Col Scheller posted another video on 29 August. On his first video, retired Col Thomas Hobbs, his former mentor, commented that he should resign if he was honourable.
“You didn’t say, ‘is,’ as if challenging me,” Lt Col Scheller told Col Hobbs in the follow-up video. “You said, ‘was,’ as if I wouldn’t do it.” The marine then said he was leaving his job and that if his viewers followed him, they would take “the system down”.
‘I 100 per cent believe it’s a ploy for him to run for office’
Col Hobbs told The Washington Post that Lt Col Scheller had served under him previously and that he was one of his best commanders. But Col Hobbs added that he had told Lt Col Scheller that his arrogance could spell trouble for him.
“He hasn’t shown one speck of remorse or admitted he was wrong in any way,” Col Hobbs told the paper. “I 100 per cent believe it’s a ploy for him to run for office.”
Mr Parlatore told the outlet that his client had experienced an “emotional roller coaster” following his first video and that many other veterans were experiencing similar emotions.
“There is no question that there is some severe emotional distress throughout, and he definitely went to some very dark places,” the attorney said. “This is unfortunately not uncommon for a lot of the veteran community.”
Lt Col Scheller posted another video in September, in which he said he was “filled with rage” after Marine Corps colleagues turn their back on him – some thinking that he was having mental health issues. The rage later transformed to sadness and pain, Lt Col Scheller said.
“General officers, for the last 20 years, have given bad advice consistently,” he said. “And none of them have been held accountable.”