Marine commander who demanded ‘accountability’ for Afghanistan failures is relieved of his duties
Stars and Stripes August 27, 2021
The Marine officer who filmed a viral video calling out senior military and civilian leaders for failures in Afghanistan was relieved of command Friday “based on a lack of trust and confidence,” he said.
“My chain of command is doing exactly what I would do…if I were in their shoes,” Lt. Col. Stu Scheller wrote in identical Facebook and LinkedIn posts announcing his dismissal from command of the Advanced Infantry Training Battalion at Camp Lejeune, N.C.
Marine leaders can address their disagreements with the chain of command through proper channels, not social media, said Maj. Jim Stenger, a Marine Corps spokesman, in an emailed statement confirming that Scheller had been relieved by Col. David Emmel, commanding officer of the School of Infantry-East.
“This is obviously an emotional time for a lot of Marines, and we encourage anyone struggling right now to seek counseling or talk to a fellow Marine,” Stenger said.
Scheller posted the video critique on social media Thursday, hours after a blast in Kabul killed 13 U.S. troops. He appears in uniform and responds directly to Marine Corps Commandant Gen. David Berger’s letter to troops and veterans asking whether the nearly 20-year-long war in Afghanistan was worth it.
“The reason people are so upset on social media right now is not because the Marine on the battlefield let someone down,” Scheller says in the video. “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.’ ”
The video garnered more than 300,000 views and 22,000 shares on Facebook and LinkedIn, spurring both praise and criticism in the more than 4,000 comments within its first 24 hours.
It’s the latest in a spate of calls from veterans and others demanding that senior officials answer for mistakes over the course of the war, especially in its final months. Some have blamed the precipitous U.S. withdrawal for undermining the Afghan government and allowing the Taliban to seize the country.
Critics have also likened the Afghanistan failure to the Islamic State group’s sweep through Syria and Iraq in 2014, when President Joe Biden was vice president and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin led U.S. Central Command.
Scheller is a veteran of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, according to a biography posted on his command’s website. It states that he started his career in 2005 with the 1st Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment, which is one of the units deployed to Kabul’s airport to support the U.S. airlift.
Eleven Marines, a soldier and a Navy corpsman were killed in the attack Thursday that was claimed by the Islamic State group. About 169 Afghans were killed, two officials told The Associated Press on Friday, though a final count is expected to take more time. Scores of others were wounded, along with at least 18 U.S. troops.
Scheller says he knows one of the people killed in the blast, but he declined to name the person until the family had been notified.
“Not making this video because it’s potentially an emotional time,” he says in the video. “Making it because I have a growing discontent and contempt for … perceived ineptitude at the foreign policy level.”
Scheller cites remarks Austin gave earlier this year suggesting that the Afghan security forces could withstand a Taliban advance. He also notes that two Marine generals are supposed to be advising the president: Berger, in his position on the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and CENTCOM boss Gen. Frank McKenzie, though he does not name McKenzie.
“I’m not saying we’ve got to be ... in Afghanistan forever,” Scheller says in the video. “But I am saying, ‘Did any of you throw your rank on the table and say, hey, it’s a bad idea to evacuate Bagram Airfield, a strategic air base, before we evacuate everyone? Did anyone do that?’”
A Marine of his rank and position would be fired immediately over “the simplest live-fire incident” or equal opportunity complaint, he says. He then suggests that the lives lost over the past 20 years could all be for naught if high-level political and military leaders don’t take responsibility for their actions.
“Potentially all those people did die in vain if we don’t have senior leaders that own up and raise their hand and say, ‘We did not do this well in the end,’ ” he says. “Without that, we just keep repeating the same mistakes.”
Scheller participated in the noncombatant evacuation of American citizens from Beirut in 2006 and deployed to Ramadi, Iraq, the following year.
Beginning in 2010, he spent a year in Afghanistan, where he led a team in Paktika and Ghazni provinces that destroyed explosives caches and sought to prevent attacks with improvised explosive devices.
“Obviously new generation Marine Corps,” LinkedIn user Erik Watson, whose profile lists five years as a Marine officer, wrote in response to Scheller. “There are proper channels [to voice concerns] and if it is not addressed to your satisfaction, so sorry so sad, keep it moving. Submit resignation ASAP.”
But others defended Scheller. Facebook user Craig Lowell called his video “probably the most incredible act of leadership I’ve ever seen.”
It’s definitely out of the ordinary but almost certainly violates military rules, said Jim Golby, an adjunct senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security and a 20-year Army veteran.
“I’m not sure the last time I’ve seen an active-duty battalion commander openly and directly challenge senior military officers, including the Commandant of the Marine Corps, in this way,” he said.
Scheller echoes what many are feeling, but the video could be used to sow division in the ranks, Golby said, and in the end likely does more harm than good.
Scheller had no plans to resign, he said in a comment responding to Watson, though in the video he says his critique would likely cut his career short “if I have the courage to post it.”
“I think what you believe can only be defined by what you’re willing to risk,” he says in the video. “I think it gives me some moral high ground to demand the same honesty, integrity, accountability from my senior leaders.”
“I’ve been fighting for 17 years,” he continues. “I’m willing to throw it all away to say to my senior leaders, ‘I demand accountability.’”
In a message on LinkedIn earlier in the day, Scheller declined to speak to Stars and Stripes “until the dust settles.” After his firing he said in his post that he would not be making further statements to the press until he leaves the service.
America “has many issues,” but is “the light shining in a fog of chaos” where he will raise his three sons, Scheller said in the post about his firing. He was looking forward to a new beginning after the Corps, he said.
“While my days of hand to hand violence may be ending,” he said. “I see a new light on the horizon.”