As Marines faced their final days in Afghanistan in August 2021, a devastating suicide bombing claimed the lives of 11 Marines, one soldier, one sailor and an estimated 170 civilians.
It was then that then-Lt. Col. Stuart Scheller had reached his limit.
At the time, the Marine infantry officer was battalion commander of Advanced Infantry Training Battalion at the School of Infantry–East at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. He had previous deployments to Afghanistan and didn’t like what he was seeing.
But it wasn’t the troops on the ground he had a problem with, it was with the decisions of top brass and the chaos that followed.
Scheller posted a video on social media voicing his criticisms and calling for accountability. Though swiftly reprimanded, the officer continued to post on social media and shortly faced military charges and a court-martial.
A negotiated plea deal allowed Scheller to leave the Marine Corps in late December 2021, after 17 years in uniform.
Since then, Scheller has launched a website aimed at sparking a dialogue on military leadership accountability and he has published a book, “Crisis of Command: How we lost trust and confidence in America’s generals and politicians.”
Scheller spoke with Marine Corps Times about the book, his life since leaving the Corps and his next steps.
*Editor’s Note: This Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: Why did you write this book?
A: I wrote the book just to tell my side of the story. I felt like there were a lot of narratives that were written about me that were untrue. When I was going through my ordeal I was legally unable to address a lot of those discussions about me and it was frustrating.
Even your publication (James) Webb was a guy that I felt like was factually reporting in the Military Times/Marine Corps Times and they weren’t running his articles for like weeks at a time. You guys ran a cover story called the “Unmaking of Lt. Col. Scheller,” that guy never even called and reached out to me. (Editor’s note: This piece was part of a two-part cover series that ran simultaneously, which started with, “The Making of Lt. Col. Scheller, in which Scheller and his parents were interviewed multiple times by James Webb.)
There’s a lot of stories out there, some were versions of the truth, some were just factually incorrect. Most of them didn’t even speak to me. And I wanted to be able to in my words tell my side of the story and explain my actions.
Q: What do you hope readers, especially the military audience, will gain from reading this book?
A: One distinction I want to make: I wrote the book for the American people because I believe that there is a disconnect between the American people’s understanding and the military and how it operates.
The American people have been conditioned to lionize and show appreciation for military service, but they don’t realize how far the military has drifted from its core purpose, which should be warfighting capability.
I believe that the United States military has the best young talent in the world. I believe company-grade officers and junior enlisted go in for idealistic reasons. Now are there some of them that go in to get citizenship or get a steady job? Sure. Unlike most people, I’ve worked at The Basic School, I’ve worked at Officer Candidate School, and I’ve worked at the School of Infantry, twice. I have a better perspective on the young talent coming in than most military officers. And what I can tell you is, they are young, hungry and they want to serve their country. The problem is not the young talent that we have.
The problem is the system of promotion. And, you know, pleasing a boss and all the social initiatives that can get injected. I’m talking bigger than just “wokeism,” which in my opinion is a vague term that misdiagnosis the problem. The real problem is we acquiesce at the four-star level to other initiatives because they’ve been conditioned to please their boss.
What I want service members to get out of (the book) is how when they come in for these idealistic reasons, playing in the system long enough can allow them to drift off course of those idealistic reasons and what’s the core purpose of military should be.
Q: What results did you see from your call for accountability?
A: I don’t know. Gen. (Kenneth) McKenzie, head of U.S. Central Command during the withdrawal, has gone into the news multiple times to explain what he did and I do think him doing that is directly related to the pressure I applied in the press about how many mistakes he’s made.
CNN, MSNBC all these publications wrote stories about me. And I had my publicist send them my public relations packet and pitch for me to come on. And none of them will bring me on. And so, I almost get painted as this like right-wing guy because Fox News and Newsmax will have me on.
Q: You’ve laid out a plan in your book for reforming parts of the military system that might produce better accountability. How feasible are those changes and how would the military operate differently if enacted?
A: Some of them can be done on the tactical level. Changing how we promote officers can be done on the internal military level. And that’s relatively easy to do.
Revamping the Goldwater-Nichols legislation requires passing of laws, bipartisan agreement, which is much more difficult to do.
Almost all of them could be heavily influenced by the correct pick for secretary of defense. The next secretary of defense may never reference Stuart Scheller, but if he reads those 13, one of the 13 a seed might be planted. Because the secretary of defense, quite honestly, could force the service to move out on a lot of those.
I think the No. 1 thing you would notice is you would have people focused on performance, focused on warfighting, focused on how to enhance the lethality of where we place violence at a time and place than by all the other bullshit that they spend their time daily.
Scheller’s summarized 13-point plan:
1) War-fighting focus should be clarified as the priority. All other distractions should be minimized.
2) Overhaul the promotion system in all military services.
3) Promote based on performance, not time-based. Implement this immediately.
4) Overhaul the screening process for officers at Officer Candidate School. Drill instructors are not the people we need screening officers’ potential ability.
5) Establish a baseline threshold for tactical failure that results in the relief of a general officer and develop a separate process for it to occur.
6) Throw out “just war theory.” Replace it with “just win war theory.”
7) Review the military education system. Remove the preponderance of civilian PhDs without military experience.
8) Dismantle and rebuild the procurement, purchasing and budget processing in the military. Give each commander a budget and don’t remove and/or reallocate funds at the end of a fiscal year.
9) Update the military justice system or provide lawyers and investigators not dependent upon the system for promotion.
10) Prevent general officers from taking board member positions as soon as they retire.
11) Develop combat standards that all genders and ethnicities must achieve.
12) Identify toxic leaders in the O-6 and above ranks. Fire them immediately.
13) Legislate a new system of foreign diplomacy. Goldwater-Nichols (1986 legislation that reworked the command structure and other features of the Department of Defense) is not sufficient.
Q: How do you view the comments you posted and the choices you made following your accountability demands last year?
A: It was like a minefield. And I was trying to run to the other side, in my mind because what was on the other side was so important that it was worth risking everything for. Now, when I ran through the minefield, did I hit some mines? Absolutely. But did I continue to run forward? I did.
No one’s ever going to say in a situation like that where you’re risking everything in your life at that moment that you couldn’t have done things more effectively. People lose perspective on the amount of pressure and weight that was on me. I do believe I was trying to do the right thing.
Could I have done things better, more effectively? Yes. But I did go into it trying to do the right thing.
After I made that first video I had a choice. Do I go back and lick my wounds, apologize and back away from it? They would have let me stay in the Corps, I believe that. I would have been a lieutenant colonel building PowerPoints at Quantico (Virginia) and I could have lived to retirement. But the truth is, I believed in what I was saying. I couldn’t live my life apologizing for something that I believe to be true. And there was no other way to navigate through that without being very aggressive and applying pressure. Once I decided to get really aggressive and apply pressure, was it reckless and were there mistakes made? Yes. 100%.
How can the greatest military power in the world tolerate keeping those in power who continually squander the lives and treasure of the American people?— -Stuart Scheller, "Crisis of Command: How we lost trust and confidence in America's generals and politicians"
Q: You run a website, authenticamericans.org and you’ve published this book. What’s in store for the website and your next steps?
A: I wanted a platform for discussion. I believe the greatest threat facing representative democracy is the divisiveness and the hyperpolarization of our society and the quick rush to judgment. And so, I maybe naively believed what’s the main question is do we want a united, United States of America?
Have Americans always disagreed, yes, but it feels different right now. It feels like we’re at a dangerous inflection point where people are so riddled with emotion. What emotion does is it overrides rational thought.
The (website) is starting to evolve because my thinking has evolved. Over the nine months since I got out, I’ve gone around and talked to all of these political candidates and at these town halls. And I’m not convinced that we’re ever going to completely bring the country together in terms of views.
What can all Americans agree on? “America is worth fighting for,” is kind of where I’m at as a base statement. If you can’t agree with that then I really can’t come up with anything that we can all agree on.
As I’m evolving and trying to figure out how to bring people together. Such as a rational thinker that has strong leadership who can point out when everyone starts moving under one minute to say, “hold on a minute.”
Todd South has written about crime, courts, government and the military for multiple publications since 2004 and was named a 2014 Pulitzer finalist for a co-written project on witness intimidation. Todd is a Marine veteran of the Iraq War.