Marine’s court martial highlights military efforts to deal with partisan politics

In a screenshot from a video posted to Facebook, Lt. Col. Stuart Scheller, a Marine battalion commander, calls for the responsibility of senior military and civilian officials for the failures in Afghanistan, hours after a explosion in Kabul killed 13 American soldiers. (Facebook / Stuart Scheller)

CAMP LEJEUNE, North Carolina – When a Marine officer who has repeatedly disrespected senior officials in videos he posted online about the US withdrawal from Afghanistan appeared in a courtroom Thursday military, there were two versions of the man on trial.

First, there was Lt. Col. Stuart Scheller, a veteran who, in defiance of tradition and direct orders, has repeatedly taken to social media to call on senior U.S. officials for their handling of the withdrawal from Afghanistan. This Scheller recognized that if he was going to call other people, he must be held accountable for his own actions – willfully flouting military discipline.

“We have a lieutenant colonel who decided on his own that it was appropriate to become the voice of change,” said Lt. Col. Troy Campbell, Marine Corps prosecutor. By repeatedly stepping up his rhetoric, Scheller “resigned on his order,” Campbell said.

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 legal orders and criticized civilian and military leaders while in uniform, actions any administration would find intolerable, has for the most part not been resolved.

Some of the more controversial members of Congress have testified on his behalf, including Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene, R.-Ga., who has no military experience. She told the military tribunal that President Joe Biden should be impeached for his handling of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan and asked why Scheller was on trial.

The court martial highlighted the pressures on the military as it attempts to maintain a non-partisan tradition at a time when national politics are deeply polarized and many Americans wonder how the US military engagement in Afghanistan ended in defeat after 20 years of war.

Jason Dempsey, a retired army officer who studies civil-military relations, said there are plenty of reasons to be angry with generals about the way the war was fought. But cases like Scheller’s, he said, inject partisanship into the way the military and civilians interact in ways that are unhealthy for the country.

“What you see is everyone is trying to get a piece of this last respected institution for their own purposes,” said Dempsey, who is now an associate researcher at the Center for New American Security. “People are suing and using these members of the military to advance their own political arguments.”

Scheller, a 17-year-old infantry officer who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, pleaded guilty to contempt of officials, disrespect of senior officers, willful disobedience to a senior officer, breach of duty ‘performance of office and conduct unbecoming of an officer and a gentleman. As part of his plea deal, Scheller signed an 11-page factual statement in which Navy prosecutors detailed 27 cases 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 lost wages. The Marine Corps requested a more rigid salary mooring, but made no attempt to reduce his rank or force him to leave with a negative discharge that would result in a loss of benefits. Instead, he will resign from his commission.

Scheller burst into the public on August 26, hours after an Islamic State affiliate suicide bomber exploded in Kabul, killing 13 U.S. service members and more than 170 Afghans as U.S. troops led a chaotic and dangerous evacuation effort.

Sitting in his uniformed office 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 “growing discontent and contempt” for what he saw as “incompetence” on the part of senior US officials overseeing the war and its end.

“The reason people are so upset on social media right now isn’t because the Marine on the battlefield let someone down,” Scheller said in the video, which he posted. on Facebook and LinkedIn. “This soldier always rose to the challenge and did amazing things. People are upset because their top leadership let them down, and none of them raise their hands and say, ‘We messed it up. . “”

Scheller was quickly removed from his post and he said 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, targeting officials including Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin; General David H. Berger, the commanding officer of the Marine Corps; and Marine General Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr., head of the US Central Command.

At the same time, Scheller said, he received support from the families of some U.S. soldiers killed in action, young enlisted Marines and lawmakers.

On Thursday, Scheller said he knew he was breaking the law and wanted to take responsibility. But in a fiery 20-minute statement, he also doubled down on his comments, saying his criticisms were not about politics and that he had come to the conclusion that senior leaders were unwilling to have an honest discussion about their issues. gaps.

“This whole process, in my opinion, should be a case study of how the system can backfire on someone speaking out,” he said. “I really hope that in the future the leadership of the Marine Corps can better tolerate the challenges of the system.”

Campbell disputed the implication that the Marine Corps immediately chased him away. Scheller’s commanders repeatedly sought to intervene and correct Scheller’s behavior before throwing him in jail for nine days on remand, the prosecutor said.

In court, Greene and two other Republican members of Congress – Representatives Louie Gohmert from Texas and Ralph Norman from South Carolina – were called by the defense to testify after Scheller had already pleaded guilty. They sought to reframe the debate not on Scheller’s actions as an officer, but on the failures and political motivations of senior US officials, raising incidents that had nothing to do with Afghanistan or Scheller.

Gohmert said General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, distanced himself from President Donald Trump after showing up by his side in Lafayette Square in June 2020 following an elimination of protesters for racial justice by federal security forces. Gohmert said Milley “read the writing on the wall” and did so for her own political benefit. But the congressman left out that there was a public outcry against Milley at the time, and that the general then apologized for creating “the perception of the military involved in domestic politics.”

Gohmert, appearing outside the courthouse on Thursday evening, insisted 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 called Greene to testify after she offered to help. Parlatore said the defense team would have been “happy to have help from both sides” if anyone had offered to do so.

Scheller has already distanced himself from Trump, claiming in a Facebook post last month that while others told him to “kiss the ring” and ask the former president for help, he didn’t want to and that “I hate” the way Trump “divided the country.”

In court, prosecutors repeatedly objected to testimony from Greene and Anthony Shaffer, a retired military officer who testified on Scheller’s behalf and previously advised Trump’s presidential campaign. Shaffer compared Scheller to a whistleblower and claimed he had no choice but to voice his opinion.

The judge in charge of the case, Col. Glen Hines, supported several objections from the prosecution and said it seemed the defense team were raising political questions rather than focusing on the case Scheller.

“I’m a little lost for what I’m supposed to do with this testimony,” Hines said as Shaffer took the stand.

Dempsey said general officers should think about how to avoid politicizing the military when dealing with sensitive cases like Scheller’s. Given the moderate sentence, Dempsey said, Scheller could have been reprimanded without holding a court martial that brought in lawmakers.

“It opened up the military justice system to arguments that should have taken place during campaign stops or on the floor of the House of Representatives,” he said. “It just shows how much partisanship could infiltrate the military.”

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