Today marks five years since I was ordered into military confinement while deployed to Iraq in 2010. I find it difficult to believe, at times, just how long I have been in prison. Throughout this time, there have been so many ups and downs – it often feels like a physical and emotional roller coaster.
It all began in the first few weeks of 2010, when I made the life-changing decision to release to the public a repository of classified (and unclassified but “sensitive” ) documents that provided a simultaneously horrific and beautiful outlook on the war in Iraq and Afghanistan. After spending months preparing to deploy toAfghanistan in 2008, switching to Iraq in 2009 and actually staying in Iraq from 2009-10, I quickly and fully recognized the importance of these documents to the world at large.
I felt that the Iraq and Afghanistan “war diaries” (as they have been dubbed) were vital to the public’s understanding of the two interconnected counter-insurgency conflicts from a real-time and on-the-ground perspective. In the years before these documents were collected, the public likely never had such a complete record of the chaotic nature of modern warfare. Once you come to realize that the co-ordinates in these records represent real places, that the dates are our recent history and that the numbers represent actual human lives – with all of the love, hope, dreams, hate, fear and nightmares with which we all live – then you cannot help but be reminded just how important it is for us to understand and, hopefully, prevent such tragedies in the future.
A few months later, after spending months poring over at least a few thousand classified US diplomatic cables, I moved to also have these documents released to the public in the “cablegate” archive. After reading so many of these documents – detailing an exhaustive list of public interest issues, from the conduct of the “global war on terrorism” to the deliberate diplomatic and economic exploitation of developing countries – I felt that they, too, belonged in the public domain.
In 2010, I was considerably less mature than I am now, and the potential consequences and outcomes of my actions seemed vague and very surreal to me. I certainly expected the worst possible outcome, but I lacked a strong sense of what “the worst” would entail. I did expect to be demonized and targeted, to have every moment of my life re-examined and analyzed for every possible personal flaw and blemish, and to have them used against me in the court of public opinion or against transgender people as a whole.
When the military ordered me into confinement, I was escorted (by two of the friendliest guys in my unit) to Kuwait, first by helicopter to Baghdad and finally by cargo plane. It was not until I arrived at the prison camp in Kuwait that I actually felt like I was a prisoner. Over the succeeding days, it only got worse as the public and the media began to seek and learn more about what happened to me. After living in a communal setting for about a week, I was transferred to what amounted to a “cage” in a large tent.
After a few weeks of living in the cage and tent – not knowing what my charges were, having very limited access to my attorney and having absolutely no idea of the media firestorm that was beginning to swirl in the world outside – I became extremely depressed. I was terrified that I was not going to be treated in the dignified way that I had expected. I also began to fear that I was forever going to be living in a hot, desert cage, living as and being treated as a male, disappearing from the world into a secret prison and never facing a public trial.
It didn’t help that a few of the Navy guards delivering meals would tell me that I was was waiting for interrogation on a brig on a US cruiser off the coast of the horn of Africa, or being sent to the prison camps of Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. At the very lowest point, I contemplated castrating myself, and even – in what seemed a pointless and tragicomic exercise, given the physical impossibility of having nothing stable to hang from – contemplated suicide with a tattered blanket, which I tried to choke myself with. After getting caught, I was placed on suicide watch in Kuwait.
After being transferred back to the US, I was confined at the now-closed military brig at the Marine Corps base in Quantico, Virginia. This time was the most difficult for me overall, and felt like the longest. I was not allowed to have any items in my cell – no toothbrushes, soap, toilet paper, books, paper and on a few occasions even my glasses – unless I was given permission to use them under close supervision. When I was finished, I had to return these items. At night, I had to surrender my clothing and, despite recommendations by several psychiatrists that I was not deemed suicidal), wear a “suicide prevention” smock – a single-piece, padded, tear-proof garment.
Eventually, after public outcry regarding the conditions of my confinement at Quantico and the resignation of PJ Crowley, the former press secretary of the Department of State, I was transferred to medium custody and the general population at an Army prison. It was a high point in my incarcerated life: after nearly a year of constantly being watched by guards with clipboards and having my movements controlled by groups of three-to-six guards while in hand irons and chains and limited contact with other humans, I was finally able to walk around and have normal conversations with human beings again.
The government pressed forward with charges of “aiding the enemy” – a treasonable offense under the US constitution – and various charges under the Espionage Act of 1917 and the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. Over nearly two years of hearings, I witnessed firsthand just how much the the government was willing to invest in my prosecution: the stacks of money spent; the gallons of fuel burned; the reams of paper printed; and the lengthy rolls of personnel, lawyers and experts.
For over 100 days, I watched the lawyers who prosecuted my case present me as a “traitor” and “enemy of state” in court and then become friendly people giving greetings and making chit-chat out of court. It became clear to me that they were basically just decent people doing their jobs. I am convinced that they did not believe the treason arguments they made against me – and was, even as they spoke them.
The verdict and sentencing at the end of my court-martial was difficult to predict. The defense team seriously worried about the aiding the enemy charge and the very wide range for a sentence, which was anything between “time served” and life without parole. After the judge announced my 35-year sentence, I had to console my attorneys who, after years of hard work and effort, looked worn out and dejected. It was a low-point for all of us.
After years of hiding and holding off because of the trial, I finally announced my intent to change my name and transition to living as woman on 22 August 2013 – the day following my sentencing – a personal high point for me, despite my other circumstances. However, the military initially declined my request to receive the medically-mandated treatment for my diagnosed gender dysphoria, which is to live as a woman and receiving a regular regiment of estrogen and androgen blockers. Just like during my time at Quantico and during my court-martial, I was subjected to a laborious and time consuming legal process. Finally, just under four months ago – but nearly a year and a half after my initial request – I began my hormone treatment. I am still fighting for the right to grow out my hair to the military’s standard for women, but being able to transition remains one of the highest points for me in my entire life.
It can be hard, sometimes, to make sense of all the things that have happened to me in the last five years (let alone my entire life). The things that seem consistent and clear to me are the support that I receive from my friends, my family and the millions of people all over the world. Through every struggle that I have been confronted with, and have been subjected to – solitary confinement, long legal battles and physically transitioning to the woman I have always been – I manage not only to survive, but to grow, learn, mature and thrive as a better, more confident person.
Whisteblower Chelsea Manning (formerly Bradley) is the US Army Private (Pfc) who leaked military and government documents to the online media outletWikileaks which became the basis for the Collateral Murder video, which showed the killing of unarmed civilians by a US Apache helicopter crew in Iraq. Leaks made by Manning also resulted in the Afghan War Diary, the Iraq War Logs, and a series of embarrassing US diplomatic cables that became known as Cablegate. In 2013, was convicted by a military court or the disclosures and sentence to 35 years in prison.