This morning, at 2 a.m. U.S. central time, Chelsea Manning walked out of a Kansas prison to begin her life as a free woman at the age of 29. As one of his last acts in office, President Obama commuted Manning’s sentence, leaving her with just four months to serve instead of 35 years. Now, she’s finally re-entering a world that has transformed since she last saw it – but the form that her life will take is impossible to predict.
From a tiny cell in Kansas, Chelsea Manning has come to represent a wide range of issues to a wide range of people. Some look to her as a transgender role model; others might see her as a courageous whistleblower, or as a threat to our national security. In the 10 years since she enlisted in the Army as a closeted trans woman, American attitudes toward gender have radically shifted, in part because of her actions.
As her release was rapidly approaching, a small group of friends organized logistical, emotional and financial resources to help Chelsea thrive, but they’re in uncharted territory: No best-practices exist for a person who’s lived so unique a life.
“It’s not one of those situations you see on TV, where the gates open and Chelsea has a suitcase and she walks off,” says Vince Ward, one of Manning’s attorneys. A former Navy lawyer, Ward’s specialities now include government and security-related cases.
“She doesn’t have any clothes right now. She has a prison jumpsuit,” says Evan Greer, Campaign Director of the online rights group Fight for the Future and a friend of Manning’s. Greer helped organize a crowdfunding campaign that raised over $140,000 to support Chelsea in her first year out of prison.
“There’s a small handful of us who are close, communicating with her and her attorneys,” says Greer. “She has a huge network of people who are ready to welcome her with open arms [but] it’s going to take time for her to transition into outside life.”
“She needs to be able to have access to housing, health care, mental health care in particular,” says ACLU attorney Chase Strangio, who has represented Manning since 2013. “She’s going to need food, and she had debts that she has to pay off.” When asked what life skills she’ll need have to learn, he rattled off a rapid-fire list of challenges: “Getting your rent together, getting a cellphone, setting everything up, protecting yourself from threats that might be out there for her in particular. Paying for security if that’s necessary. Paying for health care when you don’t have access to health insurance. Finding a doctor, finding a community of friends. Finding a place where you do your laundry.”
Ultimately, he said, “she’s going to have to set up her entire life for the first time in a long time. That’s very scary for anyone.”
The military will still retain some control over Manning’s life for the foreseeable future. She’ll remain on active duty, though unpaid, on what’s known as “voluntary excess leave.” That means that she’ll be required to abide by military rules – and if she breaks any of them, the military would have authority to punish her.
But Manning has survived overwhelming challenges before. At trial, her sister Casey Major described a home life plagued by alcoholism, and prior to joining the Army, Chelsea experienced periods of homelessness. She was a closeted queer service member during Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. According to Manning’s attorneys, while she was imprisoned in solitary confinement, there were times at which she was ordered to sleep without clothing and submit to naked inspections. When the military claimed it was unable to provide medical care for gender dysphoria, Manning had to file a lawsuit in order to receive hormone therapy. In messages to her supporters, Chelsea described enduring solitary confinement, suicide attempts, and a hunger strike.
Her contact with the outside world has also been extremely limited. “She’s been unable to use a computer,” says Greer. “For her, going from the extreme position of isolation she’s been in to being able to use computers, and talk to the media and being a public figure will be a huge change.”
Manning’s advocates are eager to ensure that her needs are met – from her immediate survival to catching up on the last decade of politics, culture and technology. Her gender transition will be a particularly challenging path to navigate, given how vastly different the climate for trans people was when she entered the Army.
“I think we’re more familiar with transness,” says Strangio, “in part because of popular culture, and in part because of Chelsea.”
There’s also the matter of her ongoing legal battles. Though her sentence has been commuted and she’s free to leave Leavenworth, Manning’s conviction under the Espionage Act still stands. With her team of lawyers, her next goal is to get that conviction overturned.
“Number one, it was a completely unjust result,” says her attorney Vince Ward. “Number two, she was treated unfairly when she was in the military. And number three, the issues she’s raised will be incredibly important to people who care about government transparency.” Ward sees the case as an opportunity to challenge the military’s “culture of over-classification,” and to protect future whistleblowers.
To be clear, he added, the team’s top priority has always been to get Manning released. But once she’s free, Ward is hoping to secure stronger protections for those who disclose classified documents.
“There are only a handful of cases that involve whistleblowers and disclosure,” he says. “If you’re sitting around, waiting to orient your practice around those issues, you’d be lucky to work on one or two over the course of your career. If we had a Congress that worked and that did what’s in the best interests of the people, one thing Congress would work out is balancing keeping the public informed of stuff that’s important and protecting national security.”
That focus on activism is shared by those close to Manning, and there’s a general expectation that we’ll all be hearing more from her once she’s released. “I think she will be vocal,” says Greer. “What I can say for sure is that Chelsea plans to continue doing what she’s always done, which is trying to make the world a better place.”
Manning’s active duty status will complicate that work, particularly if officials feel that she’s been critical of the government. Until she is fully discharged, she’ll have to carefully watch her language.
“She’s just a natural advocate,” says Strangio. “She has a lot of passion. Maybe she’ll want to retreat, but I doubt it. I think she’s eager to have a public voice that’s hers and not mediated through others. She cares deeply about trans work, government transparency and principles of democracy. She has a ton of faith in our government, more than many people. She wants to see our country thrive.”
And then there are the more casual day-to-day concerns. “Girl’s going to need some shoes, right?” says Greer, who’s eager to take Chelsea to a dance party, concerts, and queer events. “It’s been amazing getting to become friends with someone I’ve never been able to see face to face, or touch.”
“I’m excited to share food with her,” says the ACLU’s Chase Strangio. “We’ve spent four years talking about things she likes to do.”
When asked if there were any games in particular she was looking forward to, he hesitates. “I think she’s going to avoid the first-person shooters,” he says.
“It’s a to-be-determined story,” says Ward. “There’s no way Chelsea can know what her life is going to look like the moment she steps out of Leavenworth. It’s like a rebirth for her, and she’ll be stepping out as Chelsea Manning, not Bradley Manning.”
Manning herself provided a glimpse of optimism in a statement to ABC News that was published shortly after her release. “As I rebuild my life, I remind myself not to relive the past,” she wrote. “The past will always affect me and I will keep that in mind while remembering that how it played out is only my starting point, not my final destination.”
“Even in her darkest moments, I think she maintained her dignity and her belief that she deserved freedom,” says Greer. “And that inspired the rest of us to continue fighting for her no matter what. … She’s been in prison for most of her adult life, and in the military for most of the rest of it. This will be her first opportunity to decide what she wants to do.” She pauses, and takes a breath. “I can’t wait to give her a hug.”