An Unfortunate Early Life
Chelsea’s early life was not what most of us would call “okay,” but this did not prevent her from developing a sense of truth and justice. She was born Bradley Edward Manning on December 17, 1987 in Crescent, Oklahoma, the son of Brian Manning and Susan Fox. Chelsea has one older sister, Casey.
Prior to the birth of his children, Chelsea’s father, Brian, entered the United States Navy at age nineteen and spent five years in the service. Sometime in 1975, he met Susan Fox at a local Woolworth’s while stationed in the Cawdor Barracks at Wales. The two immediately took a liking to each other and married the following year, having their first child shortly after. In 1979, after finishing his service in the Navy, Brian brought Susan and the young Casey to the United States, first living in California then settling in Oklahoma, where they had a two-story house, a swimming pool and five acres of land for chickens and pigs.
Brian worked as an IT manager for a rental car agency and spent a great deal of time travelling for his work. This left Susan to take care of the children, but she was a troubled individual, and spent much of her time drinking alcohol. In fact, Susan drank while still carrying Chelsea in her womb, not giving any thought to the repercussions of her actions. When Chelsea was born, she was smaller and lighter than a normal baby ought to be, but nevertheless proved to be healthy.
Because of their mother’s drinking habit, Casey often took care of Chelsea and fed her day and night. And, because Susan spent much of the money Brian was sending them on alcohol, Chelsea was fed only with milk and baby food until she was two years old. It was indeed a terrible experience for the very young Chelsea, who found comfort and care in the arms of her older sister.
In her childhood years, Chelsea spent a lot of time playing with her Lego blocks or using the computer. In school, Chelsea (who was known as Bradley) demonstrated natural gifts for science and music, excelled in most of her subjects and played the saxophone at an early age. In fact, Chelsea taught herself many things because of her mother’s lack of involvement in her life. By the age of ten, Chelsea had already developed her first website and won the grand prize in the local science fair three times in a row.
In spite of Chelsea’s talents and abilities, her family situation made it difficult for her to live “normally.” Because of their tight finances, there were some days when Chelsea had to go to school without money for lunch. Fortunately, though, a few friends would often help her out. One of the Manning family’s neighbors even described how she would give her son (who was Chelsea’s classmate) extra money whenever they went on field trips so he could make sure Chelsea would have something to eat.
Chelsea’s neighbors described her family as troubled, as her parents often got into fights because of her mother’s alcoholism. Growing up in a dysfunctional family had a strong effect on the young Chelsea, who developed an independent attitude at an early age. Her upbringing also caused her to become non-religious, which surfaced when she kept silent during the line of the “Pledge of Allegiance” which refers to God.
Breakdown in the Family
When Chelsea was thirteen years old, her parents divorced due to irreconcilable differences. Susan brought her children with her, leaving the family house and moving into an apartment. The divorce took heavy mental and emotional tolls on Susan’s health, resulting in her mood swings and instability. In 1998, Susan attempted suicide, and would have succeeded had it not been for her timely discovery by Casey and Chelsea, who took their mother to the hospital.
The Beginnings of “Chelsea” Manning
It was also around this time that Chelsea began to reveal her femininity to the people she trusted most. One of her childhood friends recalled in an interview that it was around her thirteenth year when Chelsea talked to him about her being “gay,” and slowly and subtly began acting as such. Because of her femininity, Chelsea was a target of bullying in class, and was often teased by her male classmates.
In 2000, Chelsea’s father remarried, ironically to a woman also named “Susan;” she brought with her a son from a previous relationship who started identifying himself as a “Manning,” resulting in a negative reaction from Chelsea in which she told her mother: “I’m nobody now.”
Living in the u.k. with Her Mother
The following year, in 2001, Chelsea went with her mother, Susan, to the latter’s hometown in Wales. Chelsea then enrolled at Tasker Milward Secondary School for her high school studies, but experienced tremendous bullying due to her femininity and being the only American in the class. The bullying became traumatizing for Chelsea, so much that her entire class once left her alone during a camping trip.
In spite of this unjust treatment, Chelsea nevertheless demonstrated her intelligence and brightness at school. She excelled in her studies, and was described by her friends as “quirky,” “opinionated” and “articulate.” And, even though she was bullied, it did not stop her from proving to be among the school’s top students. Her interest in computers grew further, and, in 2003, Chelsea launched a website named “angeldyne.com,” which offered downloadable content.
Eventually, Susan’s declining mental and emotional stability, as well as the seemingly-endless bullying in school, forced Chelsea to return to the United States, as she was concerned that her mother’s condition was worsening and that the best option was to let her family care for her. Chelsea settled with her father in Oklahoma City with his new family and obtained a job at “Zoto,” a local software company, but was let go after four months; her manager said of her, “nobody has been taking care of this kid for a long time.”
Returning to the United States
Upon returning to the United States, Chelsea decided to be open about who she really was – that she was gay. This revelation did not cause any strain on her relationship with her father, but she had some problems with her stepmother, and at one point even threatened her after a heated argument. Chelsea then left home and moved in with a friend, and found a job at a local pizza store in Chicago.
Sometime afterwards, Chelsea was taken in by her aunt, Debra Nicks, who was working as a lawyer in Potomac. She stayed with her aunt for fifteen months, and in that time Debra was a very positive influence in her life; Debra later wrote that Chelsea’s fifteen-month stay became the most stable part of her [Chelsea’s] life. This time included having several jobs, a boyfriend, and spending a semester studying English and history at Montgomery College.
Joining the Military
In mid-2007, Brian talked to Chelsea about joining the United States Army. Although she was unsure at first, she eventually decided to enlist in the hopes of getting a college education through the G.I. Bill (which gave scholarships to those who enlisted), as well as resolving her “identity disorder.”
Chelsea started basic training in October of that year, but was soon sent to the discharge unit after exhibiting improper behavior and insubordination. Apparently, Chelsea was still being bullied, and after so many years of ridicule she finally pushed back and found a way to fight. She was nearly discharged, but the order was eventually revoked after her superiors noticed her aptitude and talent for computers. Chelsea was then allowed to complete her basic training and was sent to Fort Huachuca, where she became an Intelligence Analyst with a Top Secret clearance.
The following year, in 2008, Chelsea was moved to Fort Drum in New York, where she was assigned to the 2nd Brigade Combat Team of the 10th Mountain Division to be trained for Iraq. It was there where Chelsea began her first serious relationship with Tyler Watkins, a student of psychology and neuroscience at Brandeis University. Through Tyler, Chelsea was introduced to the “hacker community” of Boston University and its founder, David House, who would later become one of Chelsea’s most loyal supporters.
Despite being in the military, Chelsea soon felt compelled that being feminine was who she really was. This caused certain problems with her fellow trainees, and Chelsea soon visited an Army mental-health counselor after being referred by her superior. Her relationship with Tyler also ended in 2009 after Chelsea displayed several emotional issues which caused a rift in their relationship.
Deployment to Iraq
Later that year, Chelsea was deployed to Baghdad, Iraq, where she worked with the Secret Internet Protocol Router Network and the Joint Worldwide Intelligence Communications System. Initially, two of her superiors considered not bringing her to Iraq due to her personal issues, but did so anyway due to a shortage of available analysts. Chelsea wasted no time impressing her superiors with her work, and was promoted from Private First Class to Specialist after just one month.
Chelsea’s deployment to Iraq did not help her gender issues, though, and she soon became more open in her displays of being gay – though not open enough to get her discharged and ruin her hopes for a scholarship. In one instance, Chelsea wrote to a gender counselor in the United States about her her opposition to the war and how she felt that she was a woman and was considering having surgery to change her gender. As time passed in Iraq, Chelsea began displaying an unfavorable attitude towards the war, and once was even suspended for a day every week due to her tardiness, to which she responded by posting on Facebook that she “felt hopeless and alone” in January 2010.
Witnessing the Horrors of War
Seeing the war first-hand affected Chelsea in a way her military superiors did not anticipate. At that time, many of those against the war criticized it for having an unjust basis, and Chelsea soon realized that the speculations of “supposedly made-up WMD (Weapons of Mass Destruction) reports” were evident. Along with her emotional and moral issues, Chelsea began to realize the war should not have begun in the first place, and in her position in military intelligence she began discovering several injustices committed by her fellow soldiers, such as killing innocent civilians and forcing Iraqi men to draw weapons so the soldiers could kill them.
The Leak: How it Began
It was not long before Chelsea decided that the world had to know what was really happening in Iraq. And so, in 2010, Chelsea began downloading highly-sensitive information from the military server onto her personal laptop computer, and started talking with the whistleblower organization “WikiLeaks” after she learned of their activities through one of their posts regarding the September 11th attacks in New York City.
A series of exchanges then took place between Chelsea and a member of the WikiLeaks organization, although Chelsea kept them secret. When she returned to the United States on a two-week leave, Chelsea contacted both the Washington Post and the New York Times about publishing the secret military files, although neither seemed interested in the story. Left with no other option, Chelsea turned to WikiLeaks and sent them the war logs of Iraq and Afghanistan, though she did not receive any confirmation of whether the organization received the files after she returned.
Among the files Chelsea sent was a video clip of a helicopter attack in Baghdad called “Collateral Murder,” in which a group of innocent civilians were directly-targeted and killed. This was the kind of file that would put the U.S. Army in a bad light, but Chelsea believed that saying nothing would be an injustice to the numerous innocent lives being taken every day.
Revealing Herself and Being Discharged From the Military
Eventually, Chelsea could no longer keep her gender issue a secret and, in mid-2010, sent her supervisor, Master Sergeant Paul Adkins, a message that contained a picture of her dressed as a woman. The message said:
“This is my problem. I've had signs of it for a very long time. It's caused problems within my family. I thought a career in the military would get rid of it. It's not something I seek out for attention, and I've been trying very, very hard to get rid of it by placing myself in situations where it would be impossible. But, it's not going away; it's haunting me more and more as I get older. Now, the consequences of it are dire, at a time when it's causing me great pain in itself...”
After careful consideration by her superiors, it was decided that Chelsea should be released from the military due to her increasing emotional instability. In May 2010, Chelsea started exhibiting behavior that caused one of her superiors to recommend her discharge. Around this time, Chelsea also began chatting with Adrian Lamo, a computer hacker in New York to whom she sent the information about the files she downloaded. It was not long afterward when Chelsea’s actions came to light and, on May 27th, 2010, she was arrested for leaking classified documents to a third party. Prior to her arrest, Chelsea was also demoted to Private First Class.
Chelsea was transferred to Kuwait to face the charges against her, and spent the next months in detention while awaiting her trial. Initially, the guards behaved professionally and made no attempts to harass or embarrass Chelsea, but as time went by their treatment of her grew worse. In early 2011, most of Chelsea’s privileges were stripped under the pretense that she was becoming a “suicide risk.” It is said by those who visited her that Chelsea’s overall physical health deteriorated during this time due to being alone and shackled for most of each day.
A hearing occurred in April 2011, in which the prosecution presented the case against her. The defense panel helped Chelsea by claiming that the government overstated the harm in releasing the documents, as well as acknowledging the issues of Chelsea’s gender and the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy. In 2012, the military court which handled Chelsea’s case, led by Army Colonel Denise Lind, agreed to the terms that allowed Chelsea to plead guilty so her sentence would be lessened.
The trial began in June 2013 and, after a lengthy discussion, the court found Chelsea guilty of leaking classified documents and ruled that her offenses carried a maximum sentence of 90 years. The government asked that the sentence be reduced to sixty years, and Chelsea’s lawyer fought to have it reduced to twenty years. In the end, the court sentenced Chelsea to be dishonorably discharged and imprisoned for twenty-one to thirty-five years. She will also have an opportunity for parole after serving one-third of her sentence. Chelsea began her sentence at the United States Disciplinary Barracks in Kansas.
During one of the hearings, Chelsea stated:
“I am sorry that my actions hurt people. I'm sorry that they hurt the United States. I am sorry for the unintended consequences of my actions. When I made these decisions I believed I was going to help people, not hurt people... At the time of my decisions I was dealing with a lot of issues.”
Chelsea’s arrest and trial caused massive public unrest over the internet. After the court’s final decision to imprison Chelsea, several groups rose up to defend her actions, stating that she did what she believed was right and should not be treated as a traitor simply because she exposed the injustices of the war. Among the most vocal groups are “Free Bradley Manning,” “Courage to Resist” and the “Bradley Manning Support Network,” who petitioned for the United States to reconsider her prison sentence.
One day after her sentence was passed, Chelsea announced via a press conference held by her attorney that she was a female, and requested to be called by her new name, Chelsea Elizabeth Manning. She stated:
“As I transition into this next phase of my life, I want everyone to know the real me. I am Chelsea Manning. I am a female. Given the way that I feel, and have felt since childhood, I want to begin hormone therapy as soon as possible. I hope that you will support me in this transition. I also request that, starting today, you refer to me by my new name and use the feminine pronoun (except in official mail to the confinement facility). I look forward to receiving letters from supporters and having the opportunity to write back.”
Recently, Chelsea’s lawyers have requested a pardon from President Barack Obama, stating that Chelsea’s leakage of the files did not result in any “real damage” to the United States military or the government. While an answer is yet to be given by the President, numerous human rights groups and LGBT organizations have supported the request, hoping that he will pardon Chelsea and allow her to return to a normal life.
Reactions to Chelsea’s actions remain divided today, as some say her actions made her a traitor to the United States, while others say she was right to expose the injustices in the Middle East so we can work to correct them. And, while neither side plans on yielding to the other, it is up to us to decide which is more patriotic: to stay silent about the numerous injustices for which our governments are responsible, or rattle the cage and hope for a better world.
Awards and Achievements
- National Defense Service Medal
- Iraq Campaign Medal
- Global War on Terrorism Medal
- Army Service Ribbon
- Army Overseas Ribbon