Marine’s court-martial highlights the military straining to deal with partisan politics
The Washington Post October 16, 2021
CAMP LEJEUNE, N.C. — When a Marine officer who repeatedly disrespected senior officials in videos he posted online about the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan took the stand in a military courtroom here Thursday, there were two versions of the man on trial.
First, there was Lt. Col. Stuart Scheller, a combat veteran who, in defiance of tradition and direct orders, took to social media repeatedly to call out senior U.S. officials for their handling of the withdrawal from Afghanistan. This Scheller acknowledged that if he was going to call out others, he had to be held accountable for his own actions — willfully flouting military discipline.
"We have a lieutenant colonel who decided on his own it was appropriate to become the voice of change," said Lt. Col. Troy Campbell, a Marine Corps prosecutor. In repeatedly escalating his rhetoric, Scheller "quit on his command," Campbell alleged.
Then there was Scheller the conservative cause — a political vehicle for some lawmakers to attack the Biden administration and its handling of the withdrawal from Afghanistan. The fact that Scheller disobeyed lawful orders and leveled his criticism at civilian and military leaders while he was in uniform, actions that any administration would find intolerable, mostly went unaddressed.
Testifying on his behalf were some of the most controversial members of Congress, including Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R.-Ga., who has no military experience. She told the military court that President Joe Biden should be impeached for his management of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan and questioned why Scheller was on trial.
The court-martial highlighted the strains on the military as it attempts to uphold a nonpartisan tradition at a time when national politics are deeply polarized and many Americans are questioning how U.S. military engagement in Afghanistan ended in defeat after 20 years of war.
Jason Dempsey, a retired Army officer who studies civil-military relations, said that there are many reasons to be angry with generals about how the war was prosecuted. But cases like Scheller's, he said, inject partisanship into how the military and civilians interact in a way that is unhealthy for the country.
"What you're seeing is everybody trying to get a piece of this last respected institution for their own purposes," said Dempsey, who is now an adjunct fellow at the Center for a New American Security. "People are going after and using these members of the military to advance their own political arguments."
Scheller, a 17-year infantry officer who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, pleaded guilty to contempt toward officials, disrespect toward superior commissioned officers, willfully disobeying a superior commissioned officer, dereliction in the performance of duties and conduct unbecoming an officer and a gentleman. As part of his plea deal, Scheller signed an 11-page stipulation of facts in which Marine prosecutors detailed 27 instances in which Scheller violated laws or regulations as a military officer.
On Friday, Scheller was sentenced to a letter of reprimand and $5,000 in forfeited pay. The Marine Corps sought a stiffer docking of pay but did not attempt to reduce his rank or force him out with a negative discharge that would mean a loss in benefits. Instead, he'll resign his commission.
Scheller burst into public view on Aug. 26, hours after a suicide bomber from an Islamic State affiliate detonated in Kabul, killing 13 U.S. services members and more than 170 Afghans as U.S. troops carried out a chaotic and dangerous evacuation effort.
Sitting in his office in uniform at Camp Lejeune, Scheller recorded a video in which he identified himself by rank and as the commander of the Advanced Infantry Training Battalion. He said he felt a "growing discontent and contempt" for what he saw as "ineptitude" by senior U.S. officials overseeing the war and its end.
"The reason that people are so upset on social media right now is not because the Marine on the battlefield let someone down," Scheller said in the video, which he posted to Facebook and LinkedIn. "That service member has always rose to the occasion and done extraordinary things. People are upset because their senior leaders let them down, and none of them are raising their hands and saying, 'We messed this up.'"
Scheller was quickly removed from his job, and he testified that his wife left him after the first video appeared. But, despite orders to stop, he continued to post his criticisms on social media for weeks, taking aim at officials that included Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin; Gen. David H. Berger, the commandant of the Marine Corps; and Marine Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr., the chief of U.S. Central Command.
At the same time, Scheller said, he received support from the families of some U.S. troops killed in combat, junior enlisted Marines and lawmakers.
On Thursday, Scheller said that he knew he was breaking the law and wanted to take responsibility for doing so. But in a fiery, 20-minute statement, he also doubled down on his comments, saying that his criticism was not about politics and that he came to the conclusion that senior leaders were unwilling to have an honest discussion about their shortcomings.
"This whole process, in my opinion, should be a case study on how the system can turn on someone who speaks out," he said. "I truly hope going forward that Marine Corps leaders can better tolerate challenges to the system."
Campbell challenged the implication that the Marine Corps had immediately cast him out. Scheller's commanders sought several times to intervene and correct Scheller's behavior before throwing him in the brig for nine days in pretrial confinement, the prosecutor said.
In court, Greene and two other Republican members of Congress — Reps. Louie Gohmert of Texas and Ralph Norman of South Carolina — were called by the defense to testify after Scheller already had pleaded guilty. They sought to reframe the debate as not about Scheller's actions as an officer, but about the failures and political motives of senior U.S. officials, raising some incidents that had nothing to do with Afghanistan or Scheller.
Gohmert said that Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, distanced himself from President Donald Trump after appearing alongside him in Lafayette Square in June 2020 following a clearing of racial justice protesters by federal security forces. Gohmert said that Milley "read the writing on the wall" and did so for his own political benefit. But the congressman left out that there was broad outcry against Milley at the time, and that the general later apologized for creating "the perception of the military involved in domestic politics."
Gohmert, appearing outside the courthouse Thursday evening, insisted that he was not politicizing the case by appearing.
"I'm not here for politics," Gohmert said. "I'm here to help Stu Scheller."
One of Scheller's attorneys, Tim Parlatore, said they had Greene testify after she offered to help. Parlatore said that the defense team would have been "glad to have both parties" assist if someone had offered.
Scheller has previously distanced himself from Trump, saying in a Facebook post last month that while others told him to "kiss the ring" and seek the former president's help, he didn't want to and that "I hate" how Trump "divided the country."
In court, prosecutors objected several times to testimony from Greene and Anthony Shaffer, a retired Army officer who testified on Scheller's behalf and previously advised the Trump presidential campaign. Shaffer likened Scheller to a whistleblower and claimed that he had no choice but to express his opinion.
The judge overseeing the case, Col. Glen Hines, sustained several objections by the prosecution and said that it appeared the defense team was raising political issues rather than focusing on Scheller's case.
"I'm kind of at a loss for what I'm supposed to do with this testimony," Hines said while Shaffer was on the stand.
Dempsey said that general officers should consider how to avoid politicization of the military as they handle sensitive cases like Scheller's. Considering the moderate sentence, Dempsey said, Scheller could have been reprimanded without holding a court-martial that brought in lawmakers.
"It was opening up the military justice system for arguments that either should have taken place on campaign stops or on the floor of the House of Representatives," he said. "It just goes to indicate how much partisanship could seep into the military."