A Marine Corps officer who waged a one-man social media battle against senior Pentagon brass over their handling of the Afghan war pullout told the judge at his court-martial hearing on Thursday that he just wants U.S. military leaders to admit their failures in Afghanistan.
“Since this endeavor began, not a single general officer has accepted accountability,” Lt. Col. Stuart Scheller said in prepared testimony, a copy of which was obtained by The Washington Times. He made the remarks after entering a guilty plea in proceedings at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, including to a charge of conduct unbecoming an officer.
“I am standing here pleading guilty. This is me accepting accountability. But it deeply pains me that my senior leaders are incapable of being as courageous,” said Lt. Col. Scheller, who hoped his acceptance of guilt might convince top Pentagon officials to acknowledge their own role in the collapse of America’s 20-year military campaign in Afghanistan.
Once a rising star in the Marine Corps, Lt. Col. Scheller was a battalion commander at Camp Lejeune when a suicide bomber killed 13 U.S. troops — mostly his fellow Marines — and more than 160 Afghans at Hamid Karzai International Airport in late August, during the chaos surrounding the U.S. evacuation.
During the days following the suicide bombing, Lt. Col. Scheller posted a video of himself in uniform that quickly went viral on social media, where he criticized the lack of accountability from senior American leaders. More videos and social media statements followed, as Lt. Col. Scheller continued posting them online, even after he was fired from his battalion command and ordered to stop going public with his complaints.
In one video posted on Aug. 29, he said he was resigning his commission and urged others to “follow me and we will bring down the whole … system.”
At the time, officials in the Pentagon said they were aware of the videos, and acknowledged that the days immediately following the suicide bombing in Kabul had been “obviously an emotional time for a lot of Marines.” However, the Marine Corps stressed that angry social media posts by a commanding officer against others higher on the chain of command represented a clear breach of protocol.
“There is a forum in which Marine leaders can address their disagreements with the chain of command, but it’s not social media,” Maj. Jim Stenger, a Marine Corps spokesman in the Pentagon, said in a statement at the time.
Lt. Col. Scheller was subsequently placed in the brig at Camp Lejeune for a week before charges, including one of failing to obey an order, were filed against him.
The charges sparked outrage from the public and from several Republican lawmakers in Washington. Rep. Louie Gohmert, Texas Republican, traveled to Camp Lejeune to speak in support of Lt. Col. Scheller at Thursday’s court-martial, according to The Daily News of Jacksonville, which also reported that Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, Georgia Republican, spoke on the lieutenant colonel’s behalf via teleconference.
“Nobody has owned up. Nobody has taken accountability” for the situation in Afghanistan, Mr. Gohmert said, adding that the judge should take into account that Scheller “is an honest guy” when sentencing him.
Under the plea deal, Lt. Col. Scheller agreed to admit his guilt in exchange for punishment no worse than a letter of reprimand. The judge in the court-martial signed off on the deal. Any letter of reprimand, or sentencing, will come later from the Department of the Navy rather than the court.
It was not immediately clear on Thursday when that will occur.
Prior to announcing his resignation in late August, Lt. Col. Scheller had been only about three years away from securing a comfortable 20-year pension. Under the plea arrangement that was reached, he will now leave the service at 17 years with no pension, although he may receive a “general under honorable conditions” discharge.
With his parents in the courtroom on Thursday, Lt. Col. Scheller said the ordeal has taken a toll, with his wife having left him because of it. This week has been “a tough week for me, personally and professionally,” he said in his prepared remarks.
He also accused the Marine Corps of leaking confidential documents — including his medical records — to “Task and Purpose,” a Washington, D.C. news website that covers the military.
“I was painted as a violent extremist (and) fascist and the journalist even made a connection to Hitler,” Lt. Col. Scheller said, claiming that “the Marine Corps and ‘Task and Purpose’ were working together in an effort to smear my name.”
Paul Szoldra, editor-in-chief of “Task and Purpose,” denied colluding with the Marine Corps, calling any such claims “objectively and categorically false” and saying his outlet “routinely and proudly holds the Pentagon and military leaders accountable for their actions.”
Mr. Szoldra also denied obtaining Lt. Col. Scheller’s medical records from any source.
“In fact, any mention of Scheller’s medical history mentioned in our reporting came from his own public social media posts,” he said.
Lt. Col. Scheller, meanwhile, agreed his actions were public and “very emotional,” but said he believes what he did was in the best long-term interests of the Marine Corps.
“I am being held accountable for my actions. The general officers should be held accountable for their failures,” he said in his remarks to the court.
• This article is based in part on wire service reports.