Marine officer pleads guilty to disrespecting senior officials, says his life spiraled down after posting viral videos
CAMP LEJEUNE, N.C. — A Marine officer pleaded guilty on Thursday to several criminal charges in connection with viral videos he posted criticizing senior officials during the messy U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, saying that he knew he was being disrespectful and wanted to call out what he perceived as "incompetence."
Lt. Col. Stuart Scheller, a combat veteran who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, testified that he knew he was defying orders and that his life began "spiraling" after he posted his first video in August. He said his wife left him, fellow Marine officers turned their backs on him and the Marine Corps opened an investigation into his actions. Scheller said he continued posting after receiving positive feedback from backers, including elected officials.
"Many Gold Star families, junior enlisted Marines and members of Congress reached out to support my statements," Scheller said, referring in part to the families of service members who died in the line of duty.
Scheller pleaded guilty to charges that include disrespect toward superior commissioned officers, willfully disobeying a superior commissioned officer, and dereliction in the performance of duties. An agreement reached between Scheller and the Marine Corps holds that a military judge, Col. Glen Hines, can sentence him to no more than a letter of reprimand and a seizure of two-thirds of his pay for up to 12 months, which would cost Scheller tens of thousands of dollars.
Scheller became a cause celebre among conservatives who faulted the Biden administration for the chaotic end to the 20-year war.
Among the witnesses called by Scheller's defense team were Rep. Louie Gohmert, R.-Tex., and Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., two of the most controversial members of Congress. They questioned why Scheller has been prosecuted for his actions when senior U.S. officials such as President Biden, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, have not. Greene, under oath, called for the impeachment of Biden for his handling of Afghanistan and said her office has been flooded with calls in support of Scheller. She also accused U.S. troops who carried out a drone strike that killed civilians in the closing days of the United States' withdrawal of "war crimes."
But Scheller immediately ran afoul of numerous military regulations and laws. He agreed as part of his guilty plea that service members do not have the same freedom of speech to criticize senior U.S. officials as civilians, and he acknowledged that he disobeyed a direct order to stop posting his criticisms on social media.
Scheller's first video was posted hours after an Aug. 26 suicide bombing by the Islamic State killed 13 U.S. troops and more than 170 Afghans at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul. Appearing in a camouflage uniform in his office, he questioned why senior defense officials, including Austin, had allowed Bagram air base to be turned over to Afghan forces in July before an evacuation of civilians was carried out.
In subsequent videos, Scheller also criticized Gen. David H. Berger, the commandant of the Marine Corps, and said that he was referring criminal charges against Marine Gen. Kenneth "Frank" McKenzie, the chief of U.S. Central Command, for making poor recommendations about the war.
In an 11-page stipulation of facts discussed in court, prosecutors laid out 27 instances in which Scheller disrespected senior officials and brought discredit to himself as a Marine Corps officer. Scheller signed the document as part of the plea deal.
After the first video posted, Scheller was fired as the commander of the Advanced Infantry Training Battalion at Camp Lejeune, a sprawling Marine Corps base that is home to tens of thousands of Marines in coastal North Carolina.
Aware of the possibility of more negative consequences, Scheller nonetheless posted a second video on Aug. 29 in which he said he was resigning his commission and that if viewers followed him they could bring "the system down."
Scheller posted two more videos, including a second in a khaki service uniform in which he solicited donations through a nonprofit called the Pipe Hitter Foundation. It was launched by the family of retired Chief Petty Officer Edward Gallagher, a Navy SEAL who was acquitted of murder in Iraq in 2019. Soliciting donations while in uniform went against Marine Corps policy, Scheller acknowledged under oath on Thursday.
After defying orders to stop posting on social media several times, Scheller was thrown in the brig in September. He said on Thursday that he thinks he was "imprisoned illegally," but acknowledged he had been warned several times by a commanding officer, Col. David Emmel.
"I understand that the chain of command did not want me to post on social media after the gag order," Scheller said under questioning by Hines. "That much was clear."
Testimony is due to continue in court on Thursday afternoon as Hines deliberates how to sentence Scheller.