Last August, during the chaotic exit from Afghanistan, a suicide bomber attacked an entry point to the Kabul airport, where thousands were trying to flee the Islamic Extremist Taliban. That blast killed 13 American service personnel, including 11 Marines. This week, President Biden stood by his decisions on the U.S. exit from Afghanistan.
Pres. Biden: There was no way to get out of Afghanistan after 20 years easily. Not possible, no matter when you did it. And I make no apologies for what I did.
At the time, one Marine officer, Lt. Col. Stuart Scheller, took the unusual step of going public on social media to condemn U.S. leadership and demand accountability. The videos he made landed Scheller in the brig then onto a court martial. Now out of the Marines, he tells me his mission is far from over.
Stuart Scheller: On August 26th, I was sitting in my office in Jacksonville, North Carolina, as a battalion commander, and the attacks happened. And it just got to a point where I knew no one was going to be held accountable. The plan was horrible. It wasn't done out of negligence, but it was done out of, “Well, here's the restraints that the President put on the plan,” and nobody had the courage to push back. No one had the leadership to convince him of why we needed more troops. So, I made a video essentially addressing that.
Scheller in Video: Did any of you throw your rank on the table and say, “Hey, it's a bad it to evacuate Bagram airfield, the strategic air base, before we evacuate everyone? Did anyone do that? And when you didn't think to do that, did anyone raise their hand and say, we completely messed this up?
Scheller: One of the fears when I made the video was, because I'm calculating all these things, I could've made the video and posted it, and nobody would've liked it or shared it. And then my boss still would've seen it and then I still would've gotten fired, and I would've ultimately failed. Right? So, I was thinking through that: “What if nobody cares about this video, and now I throw my whole career away for nothing?” So, the video took off much bigger than I could have ever imagined.
Scheller: When I came into work the next day, my boss said that, like, "Hey, there's going to be an investigation. Go home. I'll call you on Monday, and we'll reevaluate. Turn over the battalion to the XO.” But then, two hours later, my boss called me back into work, and he just relieved me. He didn't explain why he did a 180, and I didn't ask. I assume the generals all the way up to the commandant's office was just getting such pressure that they said, "He's got to be relieved immediately. No investigation. Just get rid of him.”
The video — the first of four he would post over several weeks — got the ball rolling toward what would ultimately be his departure from the Marines after 17 years. A second video dramatically escalated the tension.
Scheller: The second video was very emotional. I didn't take multiple takes. It was like Jay-Z. One cut, release, post. If I could go back, that's the one video that I maybe would've said different things.
Sharyl: What did you say in that video?
Scheller: Well, ultimately, the first part of it was all very accurate. I demanded accountability.
Scheller in Video: You know, I asked, all I asked for was accountability of my senior leaders when there are clear, obvious mistakes that were made. I'm not saying we can take back what has been done. All I asked for was accountability for people to comment on what I said and to say yes, mistakes were made.
Scheller: Then, at the end of it, I started talking about how the system was corrupt.
Scheller in Video: And we will bring the whole *beep* system down.
Scheller: That statement right there just caused everyone to lose context of everything else, and then it just started snowballing into me getting painted in the media as a violent extremist because I said, "I'm going to bring your effing system down." If I could go back, I would change that verbiage. But the content of everything else in there stands. I mean, you've got to understand the weight of the situation. I was making a second video knowing that my marriage would probably fall apart, because I didn't tell her I was making the second video. I knew I was giving up my retirement. I knew I was giving up my life. Much easier for people to pick apart on the aftermath without fully appreciating the weight of that situation.
With the world’s attention now on his message, Col. Scheller posted a third video, in violation of a gag order, just before he knew General Officers would be testifying to Congress.
Scheller: That was probably my most insightful post where I just basically attacked a lot of people, but I said true things.
Scheller in Video: For example, Secretary of State Blinken just testified in Congress and got beat up justifiably. But why General McKenzie was the Central Command commander from Trump to Biden didn't have to answer those same tough questions. Afghanistan has been a D.O.D. run and led mission for the last 20 years. Why the Department of State is taking the face shots of the fall is beyond me.
Scheller: Then I showed up at work that Monday and, sure enough, they put me in jail. And I understand the thought process.
That brought even more attention, news coverage, and pressure.
Scheller: So then when I was in jail, they offered me a legal deal that stated, "If you plead guilty to five charges at special court martial, we'll let you out of jail. You can get an honorable or general [unhonorable], and then you have to resign and give up your retirement.” So, I thought if I said “not guilty” to any of them and tried to beat it to keep my retirement, it might take away from me showing what accountability looks like and negate the whole purpose of the endeavor. So, I decided to plead guilty, and I got out of jail by signing the deal. From the beginning, I knew I had broken some of the rules, but I broke the rules to highlight an issue that I thought was bigger than that. You’re never going to bring back the 13 service members that got killed, but you can prevent placing members in bad situations in the future by addressing these things through open and transparent conversation.
Sharyl: Are you satisfied with the result you got in the end?
Scheller: It's not the end. I, as an officer, was able to affect limited change. I maybe sparked a conversation, but ultimately, none of them have been held accountable yet. So, going back to that one statement where I said, "I wish I would've changed bringing your whole effing system down," ultimately what I meant was: there are fundamental problems with the system that need to be changed, and I'm still fully committed to making that happen.
Sharyl (on-camera): Scheller says it’s not about political party, it’s about strong and committed leadership. He’s now helping to get candidates elected to Congress this year and says he may run himself in 2024.