After serving seven years for releasing secret military documents, Chelsea Manning walked out of a Kansas military prison free on Wednesday.
Manning, 29, was sentenced to a 35-year prison sentence after releasing classified military information to WikiLeaks that she obtained during her time as an army soldier. Due to the large number of leaked documents, Manning’s sentence for whistle blowing was the longest in US history.
Throughout her time in prison, Manning was seen as a hero by some and as a traitor by others. Born as Bradley Manning to a Welsh mother and an American father, Manning also elevated discussion on LGBT rights in the military after her struggles with gender identity came to light in the midst of the WikiLeaks scandal.
After a troubled childhood (alcoholic parents, years of bullying), Manning joined the army at Fort Meade and, in 2009, shipped out to Iraq. There, she worked as an intelligence analyst and had a chance to see information about army operations in the Middle East that she found deeply disturbing.
In 2010, Manning learned about Julian Assange and his site WikiLeaks after seeing them post documents about the 9/11 attacks. She downloaded more than 250,000 documents, including a video of an American helicopter gunning down civilians and two Reuters reporters, onto a CD titled “Lady Gaga.” After not receiving answers from The Washington Post and The New York Times, Manning sent the documents to WikiLeaks.
Once WikiLeaks and prominent news publications started publishing the materials, a computer hacker who talked to Manning about the leaks revealed her to the FBI. Manning was arrested in May 2010 and plead guilty to some of the charges in 2013. Even though she was cleared of the more serious offence of aiding the enemy, Manning was sentenced to 35 years in prison for numerous charges under the Espionage Act.
“When I chose to disclose classified information, I did so out of a love for my country and a sense of duty for others,” Manning said after her sentencing in a letter sent to then President Barack Obama. She was then transferred to a Kansas military prison.
A day after her sentencing, Manning announced that she wanted to live as a woman and asked to be identified as Chelsea instead of Bradley.
“I am Chelsea Manning. I am female,” she said in a statement at the time. Throughout her time in prison, Manning’s lawyers fought to give her access to drugs for gender dysphoria and have the military refer to her by female pronouns.
The American Civil Liberties Union has been a vocal supporter throughout Manning’s trial and sentencing, and eventually helped her sue the military for repeated refusals to give Manning access to drugs for her gender dysphoria.
“When a soldier who shared information with the press and public is punished far more harshly than others who tortured prisoners and killed civilians, something is seriously wrong with our justice system,” the ACLU said.
Even though the army eventually approved Manning’s requests for hormone therapy, the protracted legal battles earned her significant media attention among advocates. While in prison, Manning was interviewed by Cosmopolitan, contributed political opinion pieces to The Guardian, and started tweeting under the handle @xychelsea by dictating her words through a prison phone.
She frequently spoke out about the prison’s treatment of her as a transgender woman and, in September 2016, went on a hunger strike until the army agreed to provide her with gender reassignment surgery. The next month, Manning was placed in solitary confinement as punishment for trying to take her own life back in July. While in confinement, Manning made another suicide attempt.
Just when public discussion of Manning had left the headlines, Obama announced plans to commute her sentence three days before President Donald Trump took office in January 2017. Despite protests from Republicans, Manning was released from jail on May 17, 2017.
Hours after coming out of the prison, Manning told ABC News that her time on the inside was only her “starting point, not [her] final destination.” In her first hours of freedom, Manning tweeted about enjoying pizza and told news outlets that she was looking forward to growing out her hair after being forced to cut it in the men’s prison.
“For the first time, I can see a future for myself as Chelsea,” she said in a statement before her release. “I can imagine surviving and living as the person who I am, and can finally be in the outside world.”
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