A growing number of conservative lawmakers on Capitol Hill are rallying to the cause of a Marine lieutenant colonel jailed this week for his outspoken and repeated criticism of his superiors and what he said was their failure to take responsibility for mishandling the chaotic final days of the U.S. war in Afghanistan.
Lt. Col. Stuart Scheller lost his job as commander of the Advanced Infantry Training Battalion at North Carolina’s Camp Lejeune after posting a video demanding accountability from top military leaders after the Aug. 26 suicide bombing at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Afghanistan. The attack killed 13 U.S. service members and more than 160 Afghan citizens. Col. Scheller followed up his criticism with several more online videos and even wrote about the gag order his superiors issued demanding he stop.
This week, he was moved to the brig at Camp Lejeune because the Marine Corps considers him a flight risk and thinks China could use his videos as fodder for anti-U.S. propaganda, according to someone familiar with the case against the Marine officer.
Col. Scheller’s father, in an interview with The Washington Times, called his son’s jailing “disgusting.”
At least three dozen lawmakers, led by Rep. Louie Gohmert, Texas Republican, have written to Gen. David H. Berger, the Marine Corps’ commandant and top legal officer, questioning the treatment of the lieutenant colonel.
Some lawmakers are raising criticism of the Pentagon brass. They say political conservatives in the ranks have been unfairly targeted since President Biden took office.
“This confinement appears to be simply for messaging, retribution and convenience” in violation of military legal statutes, the lawmakers’ letter said. It urged Gen. Berger to move the lieutenant colonel to “the least restrictive form of housing” while his case is heard. The letter questions the Corps’ stated rationale that Col. Scheller was incarcerated because he was a “flight risk.”
Marine Corps officials confirmed in a statement released to The Times that Col. Scheller is being held pending an Article 32 preliminary hearing, similar to a pretrial hearing in a civilian courtroom. The military news website Task & Purpose said the officer is facing four charges: contempt toward officials, willfully disobeying a superior commissioned officer, failure to obey an order, and conduct unbecoming an officer and a gentleman.
“The allegations against Lt. Col. Scheller are merely accusations. He is presumed innocent until proven guilty,” Marine Corps officials said in a statement.
White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki, asked about the case at her daily news briefing Thursday, declined to weigh in, even after it was noted that President Biden praised active-duty military officers who went public with concerns about President Trump’s handling of a Ukraine arms deal during Mr. Trump’s first impeachment trial.
“I don’t have all the details on these circumstances. I understand that’s going to be frustrating to you, but we will work to get you an answer on it,” Ms. Psaki said.
After five combat tours in the Middle East, Col. Scheller received multiple awards, including the Bronze Star. He was three years away from securing a 20-year retirement from the Marine Corps when he released the videos demanding accountability from senior military leaders over their handling of the war. Supporters who have raised more than $700,000 for his legal defense said a government pension to him mattered less than simply doing what is right.
“What you believe in can only be defined by what you are willing to risk,” Col. Scheller, dressed in uniform, said in one of the videos.
In another, he said he was considering a court-martial case against Marine Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr., the commander of U.S. Central Command, over accusations of dereliction of duty. Gen. McKenzie was on Capitol Hill for two days of sharp questioning this week about the Afghanistan endgame and the rapid collapse of the U.S.-backed government in Kabul.
Telling the story
Stuart Scheller Sr., the Marine’s father, was harsh in assessing his son’s treatment in a phone interview Thursday.
The Marine Corps “would just as soon put pressure on him and make him go away. It’s disgusting,” Mr. Scheller said. “I’ve been a proud Marine dad for the last 17 years, but I’m so angry and upset that they’d do this.”
Mr. Scheller said he hadn’t spoken with his son since Monday, when they had a two-minute phone conversation after the Marine was taken into custody.
“He said, ‘Please contact my attorney’ and ‘Tell everyone this story,’” he said. “They wanted to shut him up and silence him, so they put him in jail. But now that he’s been locked up in prison with a gag order, Mom and Dad are telling his story.”
Mr. Scheller said he was never aware of his son’s growing concerns about how the war in Afghanistan was turning out. “He’s a 40-year-old man, and I think he probably wanted to protect us,” he said. “He knew what he was doing. He knew that there was no going back.”
Robert J. O’Neill is the former Navy SEAL who killed Osama bin Laden during Operation Neptune Spear in May 2011. He said Col. Scheller is the type of military officer who inspires enlisted troops.
“He’s standing up for them. He doesn’t care about himself,” Mr. O’Neill said in an interview. “He puts team before self and country before self. He’s the kind of guy they’ll follow to hell.”
Some military officers nearing retirement might be more cautious, Mr. O’Neill said, but Col. Scheller is a “danger to the system” because of his willingness to speak up while still in uniform.
The Naval Academy football team “fired their offensive coordinator for going 0 and 2, but no one has been fired for Afghanistan,” he said. “They can’t even admit they’re wrong.”
Mr. Scheller said his son’s direct military commanders at Camp Lejeune seem to be concerned about his treatment but don’t have “the tools” to support him during the pretrial period. Although Col. Scheller has asked to forgo his pension and resign from the military, Marine Corps officials told his father that wasn’t an option.
“The USMC told us — his parents — that our son serves at the pleasure of the president. They have not accepted his resignation,” his family members said in a statement.
The videos and social media posts indicate Col. Scheller wasn’t a political partisan. He criticized Democrats and Republicans alike, including former Presidents Donald Trump and Barack Obama and several active and retired generals such as former Defense Secretary James Mattis.
Mr. Scheller said his son, in only about a month, has gone from being the commander of a prestigious infantry battalion to a Marine incarcerated for demanding accountability and integrity from senior military leaders.
“All our son did was ask the questions that everyone was asking themselves but were too scared to speak out loud,” he said. “He doesn’t deserve this treatment.”