Chelsea Manning will be released from military prison at Fort Leavenworth next week. She will finally get a chance to be herself without having to conform to the rigid guidelines or expectations of the United States Army.
News media are undoubtedly clamoring for an “exclusive” interview with Manning after she leaves prison. One can imagine the atrocious template, which has persisted, that they probably will call upon once more for her introduction.
“There are some who call her a hero. There are others who see her as a traitor. Whatever you think, she served time in prison for one of the biggest leaks in history, and now she joins us for a first-ever TV interview.”
If her first interview is on NBC’s “Today” show, one can be certain Savannah Guthrie will probably ask if Manning thinks President Barack Obama was right to commute her sentence, like she has some obligation to validate those who vilify her and would be unfazed if she had died in prison.
It is very possible she takes some time out of the public eye and does not give any media outlet an “exclusive” for pundits to pick apart and berate her. That may include sympathetic media outlets.
Very personal aspects of her life have garnered public attention to an extent she never imagined. She now can have private moments without being watched by military officers, journalists, or the public.
For two and a half years, I made regular trips to Washington, D.C. in order to cover Manning’s court martial at Fort Meade as a credentialed reporter. I was able to glean some insight into her character when she took the stand to give testimony and when she read a providence statement accepting responsibility for her actions. But it was not until November 2015 that I wrote Manning to exchange letters and gain firsthand insight.
“I can’t be myself. Every time I try to assert my existence or define myself on my own terms, I get beat up by the world. I’m really scarred, bloodied, and bruised at this point,” Manning shared in one of her letters.
When she appealed to Obama for a commutation in November, she confessed, “I need help, and I am still not getting it. I am living through a cycle of anxiety, anger, hopelessness, loss, and depression. I cannot focus. I cannot sleep. I attempted to take my own life.”
“When the USDB [Leavenworth] placed me in solitary confinement as punishment for the attempted suicide, I tried it again because the feeling of hopelessness was so immense. This has served as a reminder to me that any lack of treatment can kill me so I must keep fighting a battle that I wish every day would just end,” she added.
Free from prison, Manning will be able to grow her hair. She will be able to obtain adequate mental health treatment that has been denied to her. She will be able to complete her transition from Bradley to Chelsea, which the Army has done everything in its power to stall at great risk to her health.
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“For the first time, I can see a future for myself as Chelsea. I can imagine surviving and living as the person who I am and can finally be in the outside world,” Manning declared in a recent statement posted by the American Civil Liberties Union.
“Freedom used to be something that I dreamed of but never allowed myself to fully imagine,” she added. “Now, freedom is something that I will again experience with friends and loved ones after nearly seven years of bars and cement, of periods of solitary confinement, and of my health care and autonomy restricted, including through routinely forced haircuts.”
In prison, she managed to transcend her act of whistleblowing as an all-source military intelligence analyst by fighting for dignity and rights for herself as a transgendered person.
Manning developed into an inspiration for young queer and transgender youth, who wrote letters to her about their struggles, and she had the fortitude to embrace this role and reply with love and understanding.
“I really relate with all of them. I try my best to reach out to them because I want them to know that I appreciate their support,” Manning confessed. “I was one of them once, and I remember those years intimately. I’m glad the world has changed a little bit, but it still worries me that these young kids are growing up with such a disadvantage.”
Her supporters define her by the information she revealed—the “Collateral Murder” video, the military incident reports from Iraq and Afghanistan, diplomatic cables, and files on Guantanamo Bay detainees. There may be an expectation that she share more of her thoughts about what she released because she no longer has to worry about the conditions of her confinement worsening if she speaks out. Yet, there will be plenty of time for Manning to return to what set off one of the most high-profile cases in military history. She need not feel pressured to do so immediately.
As with other cases, where individuals were unjustly confined and sentenced to lengthy periods of imprisonment, her release will forever be a triumph for the spirit of Chelsea Manning and the tenacity of a grassroots movement, which brought attention to her case.
Some of these individuals stood out on the corner outside the gates of Fort Meade. They held signs up to cars as they passed by on a main thoroughfare in a military town. They did not care if the odds were stacked against Manning. They believed she deserved freedom, not punishment, and always showed up to the gates and the courtroom.
Setting foot outside the disciplinary barracks will seal the victory. Alive, Manning will have the last word on her case. The pundits from media outlets, which only paid her attention when they could make what she was enduring infotaining, will not. Neither will officials who made hyperbolic and baseless statements about the damage she allegedly did to the United States.
Chelsea Manning will own her story. She will teach us the lessons we should learn from what she did, her prosecution, and her commutation. She will not only define the life ahead of her but the life she survived over the past seven and a half years.
Once she builds her new life and revels in the new hope she has found, a world will be there to listen to whatever she has to say because all along she has always been authentic and true to her conscience and willing to invite us to share in her vulnerability and struggle against a government that, in a small window of time, saw fit to show her a bit of mercy.