Until a series of controversial social media posts demanding accountability from senior military and political leaders led to his eventual military court-martial and discharge, now former Marine Lt. Col. Stuart Scheller was a star on the rise in the Corps.
‘I don’t think I’ve seen an officer consistently in, as we say, the top three blocks of the Christmas tree,” Marine Judge Col. Glen Hines, who oversaw Scheller’s court-martial and also handed him a light sentence, said to the court Oct 15. “He was on a consistent upward path.”
Now that Scheller is a civilian, kicked out of the Corps as part of a plea deal right before Christmas, he told Marine Corps Times in a phone interview that he plans to transform his calls for accountability into concrete action.
However, that will not mean running for political office in 2022, as many have speculated. Instead, he has teamed up with another Marine veteran ― one who had been successful in the private sector ― to run a coalition supporting more than two dozen candidates for federal office.
“I think there needs to be leaders in Congress,” Scheller told Marine Corps Times Dec. 26. “Right now, we have a bunch of politicians, and I just don’t think that’s enough. They’ve demonstrated that a lot of them don’t have the courage that’s required to be up there.”
Dubbed the “Disabled Veterans PAC” and housed on his website “Authentic Americans,” Scheller told Marine Corps Times that the PAC is supporting about, not yet publicly disclosed, twenty candidates for the U.S. House of Representatives and five candidates for the U.S. Senate.
While the PAC is nonpartisan, Scheller says it currently is only supporting Republican candidates for office and that the effort is “evolving.”
Criteria for his PAC support includes that if elected, candidates will demand more accountability from military leadership and government; invite themselves to be held accountable for what they do in office; and will take substantive action while in office, rather than “just talk the talk.”
More than 90% of the Disabled Veterans PAC-supported candidates are veterans themselves, Scheller says. The remainder either have family in the military or have worked on veterans’ issues and have been endorsed by veterans’ organizations.
It is unclear to Marine Corps Times where the PAC money is coming from, and public documents aren’t giving any clues this early on ― though campaign contribution website OpenSecrets.com did show the PAC was in existence and had zero donations reported as of the site’s last update on Oct. 18, 2021.
As of October 2021, controversial former Navy SEAL Eddie Gallagher’s Pipe Hitter Foundation, which represented Scheller in court, helped raise more than $2.5 million on Scheller’s behalf.
That money, according to an email from Pipe Hitter Foundation, was used for legal defense, as well as what the organization described as “hardships.” According to the Pipe Hitter Foundation, hardship funds were used strictly for “rent, mortgage payments, food, utilities, other such living expenses, medical care, childcare, and education.”
Scheller, whose political party affiliation wasn’t available on public records, said, “Ultimately, I just want to put leaders that aren’t extreme with their political views,” adding that political moderates in the U.S. have more in common with each other than with ideological factions on the extreme left or right.
Ultimately, Scheller says he wants to support those who “are willing to have moral courage stand for integrity, honesty, and go up to Washington to be a voice for change.”
Only time will tell how the now well-known name and reputation of Scheller, who lost a small business and saw his wife leave him amid his intriguing few months in the spotlight, will fare in the civilian and political arena.
‘This was my die on a hill’
Seeking accountability has been a consistent theme for Scheller since his first social media video went viral in late August 2021.
Scheller made that first video, in uniform, shortly after 13 U.S. service members, including 11 Marines, a Navy corpsman and a soldier, were killed in an Aug. 26 complex attack centered around a suicide bomber outside the gates of Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul.
A former infantry officer who fought in both Iraq and more recently Afghanistan, as the then lieutenant colonel battalion commander watched the haphazard withdrawal from Afghanistan culminate in the largest loss of U.S. lives there in nearly a decade, he thought speaking out was the right thing to do.
He did not plan to make other videos after the first one.
“My headspace was, ‘This is it,’” Scheller told Marine Corps Times. “This was my die on a hill. I think that this is important enough that we have this conversation.”
At the behest of his commanding officer, after that first video Scheller said he went home for the weekend, being told that the two of them would resume discussions about the video and pending investigation. Hours later, he received a phone call that informed him, without detail, that he had been relieved of command of the Advanced Infantry Training Battalion at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina.
A Marine Corps spokesman told Marine Corps Times at the time that the final withdrawal from Afghanistan was, “obviously an emotional time for a lot of Marines, and we encourage anyone struggling right now to seek counseling or talk to a fellow Marine. There is a forum in which Marine leaders can address their disagreements with the chain of command, but it’s not social media.”
However, Scheller claims that even as his command referred him for a psychiatric evaluation, no one in his chain of command called to ask how he was, much less talk about what his future held or the content of his public statements. Scheller said this inaction drove him to take to social media with other videos.
“I just realized the Marine Corps didn’t care about me, and no one was addressing the content of my statements,” Scheller said. “That’s when I made the second video. I was like, ‘if you don’t care about me, I don’t care about you.”
Following Scheller’s second video on Aug. 29 the Marine Corps released another statement stating that the service was “aware” of Scheller’s second video and that “the Marine Corps is taking appropriate action to ensure the safety and well-being of Lt. Col. Scheller and his family. As this is a developing situation, we cannot comment further at this time.”
Subsequent videos and postings by Scheller ultimately had him placed ― according to multiple outlets, Scheller, his parents, and his attorneys, but unconfirmed by the Marine Corps ― under a “gag order” and then in military jail.
While the Marine Corps declined to comment on the specific reason Scheller was put in confinement, both Scheller and his parents told Marine Corps Times that it was due to his presumed status as a “flight risk.”
“I was coming into work every day,” Scheller said. “That was a blatant lie.”
Though Hines stated during the trial that Scheller’s confinement, coupled with leaks about his record ending up in the media, “raised the specter of unlawful command influence,” the lieutenant colonel chose to plead guilty to all charges instead of fighting them in court.
“As a guy that’s saying I demand accountability it seemed not congruent for me to try and beat the charges when I knew deep down that I had broken some of the rules,” he said.
Scheller hopes that the candidates supported by his PAC will bring both fresh eyes and accountability to Washington.
A singular example of what this kind of accountability might look like is contained in the process of the roughly $770 billion 2022 National Defense Authorization Act recently signed by President Joe Biden.
The 2022 NDAA includes $25 billion more than requested by the White House and is almost $40 billion more in spending than the previous record 2021 NDAA, despite the disastrous U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan and the steep drop in civilian confidence in the military.
To Scheller, the NDAA would have been the perfect opportunity for Congressional leadership to demand accountability regarding Afghanistan.
“None of them tried to use the DoD budget, which was their one leverage of control,” he said. “Not one Congress member stood up and said, ‘Hey, show us metrics of effectiveness. Show us accountability’.”
Instead, Scheller said, Congress once again handed over a “blank check” to the Defense Department without the department demonstrating its effectiveness or owning accountability for results.
While the effectiveness of the Disabled Veterans PAC likely won’t be able to be measured for years to come, the appetite among veterans for accountability regarding the last 20 years of war is high.
In December 2021 a bipartisan group of veterans’ organizations helped secure the inclusion of the Afghanistan War Commission in the 2022 NDAA. Although it will not produce results or actionable items for at least four years, the inclusion of the commission in the NDAA, according to Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America’s Matt Zeller, is indicative of the latent political power of veterans and veterans’ organizations.
“Veterans have never been more politically organized,” Zeller told Marine Corps Times. “So I think if we don’t use the opportunity we have now, then we will have squandered it, and shame on us.”
It’s an opportunity that Scheller is trying to capitalize on.
“I love the Marines. I’ve got a lot of good friends still in the Marine Corps,” Scheller said.
“Ultimately, I want the military as a whole to be more effective. I want our foreign policy to be more effective. And I think to do that, we need open and transparent conversations.”
Davis Winkie, Philip Athey and Andrea Scott contributed to this report.
James R. Webb is a rapid response reporter for Military Times. He served as a US Marine infantryman in Iraq. Additionally, he has worked as a Legislative Assistant in the US Senate and as an embedded photographer in Afghanistan.