Stu Scheller’s Sideshow

The convicted criminal has taken his shenanigans to court.

I haven’t commented here on the bizarre tirades of Marine LtCol Stuart Scheller about the failures of our military and political leaders in Afghanistan. While I write a lot about military affairs and have a deep professional interest in civil-military relations, I couldn’t quite get a handle on the case. I’m not quite sure that I have it all figured out even now.

When I first heard about it, when I was filling in for another professor at work, I hadn’t seen the video and noted that there are in fact appropriate ways for that sort of criticism to be delivered, even over social media. When I saw the (first) video, which Scheller posted to his LinkedIn account, I quickly realized this was not an example of that. Not only was it an unprofessional rant, but it was delivered in his uniform from his office; it was not only inappropriate, it was illegal. At the same time, though, I was prepared to cut him a lot of slack. The hasty withdrawal from Afghanistan is an emotional event for those who have lost friends and comrades in that fight.

But before I could comment on it, I discovered that he was a recent graduate of the College and got mixed reviews as to whether this was in character. And, roughly at the same time, Scheller posted another video (and another and another) and my focus went from his violation of professional and ethical norms to real concern for his mental health and well-being.

As things have shaken out, I’ve gathered that Scheller is a talented officer—one doesn’t get selected for command at the lieutenant colonel level, an indicator that one is on the path to making full colonel otherwise—but rather arrogant. I still have doubts about his judgment and mental health. But, at the same time, he has chosen to surround himself with disreputable figures like the war criminal Eddie Gallagher and certainly seems headed for the “wingnut welfare” route. I’m not sure whether this is simply where his poor judgment in this matter has left him or whether it was his intention all along.

Regardless, per the Military Times (“Day 1 of outspoken Marine’s trial brings guilty plea and political sideshow“) here’s where we are now:

When Lt. Col. Stuart Scheller’s defense team called Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Georgia, to the virtual witness stand Thursday afternoon, the tablet showing her Zoom testimony to the Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, courtroom fell down.

So did her arguments during the sentencing phase of the Marine officer’s special court-martial, which meandered from her personal 9/11 experience to calls for President Joe Biden’s resignation.

Amid repeated relevancy objections from Lt. Col. Nicholas Gannon, the Marine Corps’ top prosecutor, Greene was cut off multiple times by Col. Glen Hines, the military judge who will rule on Scheller’s sentence Friday.

I am not a lawyer but absolutely question how Greene’s testimony could possibly be relevant. Still, I’m inclined to grant the defense significant leeway during the sentencing phase.

Earlier in the day, Scheller had pleaded guilty to all charges against him as part of a plea agreement with the Corps, which will conclude a saga that began when he took to social media Aug. 26 to demand accountability from senior leaders for their perceived failures in Afghanistan.

Scheller was convicted of violating Article 88 (contempt toward officials), Article 89 (disrespect toward superior commissioned officers), Article 90 (willfully disobeying a superior commissioned officer), Article 92 (dereliction in the performance of duties), Article 92 (failure to obey an order or regulation) and 27 specifications of Article 133 (conduct unbecoming an officer and a gentleman).

To steal a line from Aaron Sorkin: “These are the facts of the case. And they are undisputed.”

Although the agreement set a maximum punishment of forfeiting two-thirds pay for 12 months, during the afternoon portion of the sentencing hearing prosecutors asked that Scheller forfeit $5,000 monthly for six months. He will also receive a punitive letter of reprimand, resign his commission and receive an honorable discharge or general under honorable conditions as part of the agreement, so long as Navy Secretary Carlos del Toro signs off on the character of the discharge, prosecutors said.

Again, I’m not a lawyer. But I’m unsure as to how Scheller is going to forfeit pay that he won’t receive.

Were I SECNAV, I would not be inclined to grant Scheller, a convicted criminal, a discharge under honorable conditions. His service does not warrant that.

The money is unlikely to be an issue.

Scheller has raised more than $2.5 million through controversial former Navy SEAL Eddie Gallagher‘s Pipe Hitter Foundation. That money, according to the foundation’s website, is to be used not only for his legal defense, but also emergency relief funds, relocation expenses and transition out of the military, possible loss of military benefits and retirement, and family support for his wife and three children.

That large number of people think Scheller and Gallagher are somehow heroes is sad but unsurprising.

It’s noteworthy that there’s no “possible” loss of retirement here: he has not served long enough to have earned one. By throwing away his career after eighteen years of service, he failed to reach the twenty-year mark required. Indeed, he acknowledged as much in his very first video.

Despite his guilty pleas, Scheller’s stance on the issue of accountability for the chaotic Afghanistan withdrawal remained firm throughout the day, first in his responses to Hines’ questions and later when he delivered a 20-minute statement explaining his actions. He also denied that any of his social media posts called for violence.

“I believe fundamental change needs to occur in the military,” Scheller argued. “I am being held accountable for my actions. The general officers should be held accountable for their failures.”

He also described the challenges he faced after he started making videos and posting his views on social media.

Scheller’s first viral video, which showed him speaking in uniform, was posted to Facebook and LinkedIn Aug. 26 after 11 Marines, a Navy corpsman and a soldier were killed in a suicide bombing at the Kabul airport. That video, which as of Thursday had a total of nearly 1.5 million views on the two sites, garnered him much support and attention, but after that “the system had turned its back against me,” Scheller said during the trial.

After Scheller violated a gag order from his chain of command with subsequent videos and social media posts, he spent more than a week in the brig. He also said that his wife left him.

Scheller said he was moved to continue speaking out by what he called a “two-tiered system of accountability,” whereby senior leaders did not face adverse action, but he — and any other Marine who might speak out about it — is punished for saying “hard truths.”

Whether generals face “accountability” for losing wars is debatable. But it’s simply nonsensical to compare that with committing actual crimes.

Three of Scheller’s former colleagues, two of whom were lieutenants with him in Iraq, described him as a “Marine’s Marine” and reflected on the good he had done for the Corps before the crimes to which he pleaded guilty.

Hines, the judge, emphasized that troops “don’t retain the exact same constitutional rights” as civilians. Prosecutors, too, noted that it was not relevant whether Scheller was right or not — he was on trial because of what he said and where he said it.

That Scheller was a solid officer before he started posting tirades on social media is certainly a mitigating factor that should be considered in sentencing. But he’s had years of formal training and education in military schools ranging from The Basic School to the Expeditionary Warfare School to Command and Staff College. He knew damn well what the rules were. Again, even in the first video tirade, he acknowledged that he was throwing his career away.

FILED UNDER: Law and the Courts, Military Affairs
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Mikey says:

    I am not a lawyer but absolutely question how Greene’s testimony could possibly be relevant.

    Unless relevant testimony wasn’t the point.

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  2. OzarkHillbilly says:

    The guy has some issues, a loose screw or 3, no meat in the stew, no yolks in his eggs… Whatever it is, he has knowingly chosen this path.

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  3. gVOR08 says:

    A thoughtful piece, James. WAPO has, IMHO, an equally even handed piece. Uses the same photo. Notes that Louie Gohmert also testified for Scheller. If he thought having Greene and Gohmert testify on his behalf would be helpful, I’d have to agree with your “ real concern for his mental health and well-being.”

    And what does it say about our politics that he can apparently easily raise 2.5 mil? That’s frightening.

    Has Scheller ever said what he thought should have been done differently? Or is this the usual, “If everyone behaved with common sense and agreed with me it would all be better.” that we get from advocates for a third party.

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  4. Slugger says:

    Is the Algerian War and the birth of the OAS relevant to this situation? Military officers can come to think that their views are more important than the views of their civilian superiors who they believe are lacking in courage, judgement, and patriotism.

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  5. CSK says:

    On the other hand, Scheller did say that he’d rather “sit in jail” than accept help from Donald Trump.

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  6. JohnMcC says:

    I hear the strains of Lt Calley plucking on his guitar:
    “Fighting soldiers from the sky…. ”

    Or maybe Ollie North trying not to shed tears over his devotion to…. something in his head called a ‘Constitution’.

    Something like that. There are so many of them.

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  7. James Joyner says:

    @JohnMcC: The first lyric was SSG Barry Sadler, not 2LT Calley (the war criminal).

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  8. Barry says:

    James: “I’ve gathered that Scheller is a talented officer—one doesn’t get selected for command at the lieutenant colonel level, an indicator that one is on the path to making full colonel otherwise—but rather arrogant.”

    Note that Gen. Flynn received four promotions above LTC.

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  9. Erik says:

    I am extremely disappointed that a plea deal that does not include jail time was reached. It seems that, first of all, obtaining conviction without a deal would have been fairly easy. Second and more importantly, such a light punishment does little to repair the damage he has done to good order and discipline, and nothing to stop further damage. It’s a “oh please don’t throw in the briar patch” situation. Hell, better to retain him on active duty where he wouldn’t be allowed to continue promulgating speech that breaks down good order and discipline than let him freely take to the airwaves where members of the military will continue to listen and nod along. He should be in jail to protect society from the ongoing damage that he is likely to cause

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  10. Gustopher says:

    And, roughly at the same time, Scheller posted another video (and another and another) and my focus went from his violation of professional and ethical norms to real concern for his mental health and well-being.

    There’s an ongoing campaign to make people angry — from QAnon to Trump and the big lie to “socialism” and Doctor Seuss. People make terrible decisions when angry, and I’m not sure there’s a huge practical distinction to be made between a diagnosable mental health issue and perpetually angered.

    The perpetual anger machine basically replicates the symptoms of mental illness, and starts creating new patterns of behavior and thought.

    In cognitive behavioral therapy there is a triangle diagram, showing what happens in response to a triggering event — the nodes are thoughts, feelings and behavior, and they all reinforce each other, and the goal is to learn how to change behavior enough to break the reinforcement.

    Trigger happens:
    – feeling/physical-responses: heart rate increases, muscles tighten, fear hormones released to prep the fight or flight response.
    – thoughts: “oh noes, I’m going to die”
    – behavior: avoidance leaves you brittle, gritting your teeth and bearing it releases this hormone, breathing exercises releases that one, etc. it will change the physical-responses.

    It’s over simplified, but it works, kind of, for a lot of people to go after the behavior aspect (CBT) or the thoughts part (MBSR — lots of meditation puts a pause in the thoughts right before “oh noes, I’m going to die”).

    But, it also assumes that the triggering event is not a steady stream of events engineered to get an anger response.

    Basically, the dude’s mental health is going to be shit once he gets on the anger merry-go-round, he’s learning patterns of behavior and thought that are going to be hard to break. Dude’s kind of fucked. Life goes on, so it goes, etc.

    I’m more concerned about a country where 40% of the people who bother to vote are on that anger merry-go-round.

    And anger issues are basically infectious — you get angry when dealing with angry people, and if happens all the time, and you’re not an amazingly patient person, you’re likely to reinforce bad patterns of behavior so you start getting to angry faster and for more things.

    And then there’s the troll culture where people are trying to trigger an anger response in others just for funsies.

    It’s why I have little patience for assholes like the Yale douche canoe from yesterday — he’s trying to spin that merry-go-round faster. Andy might care what is in the little shithead’s heart, but I care about what he’s doing and have very little patience for it — let him feel the full consequence of his actions. The school gave him an out, because kids do stupid things, but if he doesn’t want it, they should just bring down the hammer and be done with it.

    It’s also why I don’t speak to my brothers anymore. If they’re just going to be trying to troll me with right wing shit, I don’t need that shit in my life.

    But back the Lt. Col. Moron here… he’s lost. He’s on the path to crazy town.

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  11. Jay L Gischer says:

    @Gustopher: I just wanted to note that the description “anger merry-go-round” is really, really great. It’s spot on.

    We have a whole engine now for stirring up and then rewarding anger with clicks, with attention, with money.

    And of course, when someone experiences someone manifesting that anger, their first impulse is to match it. I was just noting that impulse in myself this morning, for instance.

    And yet, I don’t know that I endorse that path. There are some out there fanning this blaze with the intention of splitting the US in two. I don’t want that.

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  12. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Gustopher: I know the feeling of the anger merry-go-round and as one who just can’t take it I check out from time to time. I wonder about the people who stay on it.

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  13. d says:

    Were I the Sec of Nav I would call him in and see if there was a way to get him to rescind his letter or resignation. I’d tell him he can go home for a couple of years until he makes his 20. No orders to report for duty will be issued, just stay off social media for a couple years. Maybe your opinions will change, but at the very least they will be more refined after spending time on them. Your prior service and that CAR has earned you this opportunity from me, and it’s the only one I can offer.

    There is a certain injustice when so many paper-pushers get their 20 in without ever seeing a drop of blood. Never see the kind of service which causes men to break down, temporarily or otherwise. Yes, to quote Clint Eastwood on dispensing justice: “Deserves’ got nothing to do with it”, but sometimes it should. It really should.

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  14. JohnMcC says:

    @James Joyner: I knew that and if I caused confusion by mixing the metaphor, my bad.

  15. Gustopher says:

    @Gustopher: I’ve been sitting with this line of thought for a few hours, and thinking of the 8 fold path of Buddhism, and how my giving up on my brothers and the other wack-jobs really is a nearly perfect example of Right Consumption (don’t consume things that are obviously bad for you, either food or media), and I’m thinking…

    Ok, I get how Buddhists can commit genocide. Myanmar seems way less foreign to me now.

    I think the answer is probably less day-drinking, and less thinking about this. But there’s a long wait for a flu vaccine at my pharmacy, and a bar nearby with a chicken parmesan hero special, and it’s a gorgeous day, and there is outdoor seating, and I’m only human.

    On the other hand, this might be the last day of the year to enjoy a beer and a sandwich outside, and I do love a chicken parm sandwich. And it came with Caesar salad, and every time I get salad supplies they just rot in my fridge.

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  16. Andy says:

    @Gustopher:

    People make terrible decisions when angry, and I’m not sure there’s a huge practical distinction to be made between a diagnosable mental health issue and perpetually angered.

    If you read his statement to the court, that comes through. He’s angry at the senior military leadership which he blames for cowardice and a lack of accountability. Essentially, it’s a long, emotional version of what then Col. Paul Yingling wrote way back in 2007: “a private who loses a rifle suffers far greater consequences than a general who loses a war.”

    And then he got angry that, in his view, his friends, peers, and the Marine Corps establishment threw him under the bus and that anger is really what did him in.

    Personally, I think he has a legitimate point with respect to senior-level accountability and Yingling’s quote is as relevant as ever, but he went overboard, went about it the wrong way which was ultimately counterproductive for what he claims he wanted to achieve.

    But I do at least respect the fact that he knowingly fell on his own sword for his beliefs, as misplaced as they were. I think many of his peers and his chain of command believed he was mentally unstable because they can’t comprehend a relatively senior officer Quixotically throwing away their career and reputation.

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  17. de stijl says:

    @Gustopher:

    Did you get your chicken parm? Your salad and a beer?

    Today was a perfect autumn day. Crisp clear perfect. I took a walk and pretended to read a read a book for an hour in my favorite nearby park and it was glorious.

    I read maybe 3 pages in that whole hour. I couldn’t stop looking around and noticing the details. It was pretty epic.

  18. Riichard Gardner says:

    You make O=7, you are a political animal or you will fail. Generals and Admirals (Flag Officers) must be political. The 1st O-7 I worked for (of 6) was later a money wonk in the Clinton & Bush Administrations (Principal Deputy under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics – Dave Oliver – I learned so much from him as I proofed his 1st book). A friend was a O-9 under Obama, he said his #1 political focus wasn’t winning wars, it was integrating women into war fighting (of course he can’t say that in public – and today he has a contractor job so he dare not speak the truth).
    Meanwhile we have a USMC O-5 talking tough on public media, violating all kinds of rules- sorry, you are beyond your pay grade. I had the same opinion of Ollie North (O-5/O–6) – 20 years ago I had fun explaining to military folks how awful a O-5 on the National Security Council was (Ollie). Seriously, crazy Rep Green (her reality is not my reality)?
    However I do agree with the Military Judge that the pre-trial detention was excessive (= keep him away from media).

  19. Ken_L says:

    Scheller. Flynn. Cotton. Pompeo. West. Schlichter. Gallagher. Issa. Jackson. Mast. Keane. Crenshaw. Not to mention dozens of ex-military personnel now working in law enforcement. If support within the military, the police and the media is a prerequisite for the success of a right-wing coup, Trump Republicans are preparing the ground well.

    See also ‘He Calls Himself the ‘American Sheriff.’ Whose Law Is He Following?
    Charismatic and ambitious, Mark Lamb embodies a new kind of Trump-era lawman.’ Scariest thing I’ve read this year. https://www.politico.com/news/magazine/2021/10/15/mark-lamb-arizona-constitutional-sheriff-elections-republicans-514781 Sample:

    Through Protect America Now, which was founded by a Republican strategist and two businesspeople working with Lamb and counterparts nationwide, he is marshalling dozens of other elected sheriffs and citizen supporters around these ideas — “building an army” as the group puts it. The message: Sheriffs are here to protect your freedom — including freedom from your own democratically elected government.

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  20. Gustopher says:

    @de stijl: chicken parm, salad and several beers.

    Good day.

    Skipped the flu vaccine. I’ll get to it, but if they can’t get their online scheduling app working, maybe elsewhere.

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  21. de stijl says:

    @Gustopher:

    Good on you.

    Virtual fist bump.

    Be well.