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Free Chelsea

Seven years ago, Chelsea Manning changed the world. Today she’ll see how

Illustrations by Eric Petersen

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When she’s released today, Chelsea Manning will have served one week short of seven years in federal prison, shuttled between facilities in Kuwait, Quantico, and Fort Leavenworth. The level of isolation varied from prison to prison, but certain restrictions have been constant. For the full length of her sentence, she’s been forbidden from accessing the internet or meeting with people she did not know before prison. In some, she’s been forbidden from having paper or even clothes.

Though she has been in military detention for as long as the world has known who she is, she’s become a global figure — we see her everywhere. “Free Chelsea” posters are a common sight at gay pride parades: a pencil sketch of her face framed by the long hair she isn’t allowed to grow in prison. Her story and her writings have been turned into an opera and half a dozen theater pieces. Today will be our first chance to see her as a person rather than a cause, but for hundreds of thousands of supporters, it’s not clear what to expect. We’ve never known her outside of prison. Playing off a few dated photographs, we barely even know what she looks like.

With Chelsea unable to speak, we have to build the story of her life from what’s available — old friends, public records, an abandoned Facebook page. Early friends describe a smart, nervous kid in a flailing family, trapped in a farmhouse in northern Oklahoma. She was more independent than her town was used to, raising eyebrows when she tried to talk to friends about moral philosophy. “You would say something, and [she] would have an opinion, which was a little unusual for a middle school kid,” one teacher told journalist Denver Nicks, in one of the most comprehensive looks at her childhood. She left Oklahoma when her parents split, drifting through Wales, Chicago, and Maryland, finishing school and working a string of bad jobs before finding her way to the military. Maybe she saw it as a path to college, or a way to serve her childhood patriotism.

She was more independent than her town was used to

If Chelsea felt isolated in civilian life, the military only made it worse, a point her lawyers drove home during the trial. She nearly washed out of basic training, sustaining a nerve injury that set her back months. Army machismo was hard on anyone smaller or more effeminate than the rest of the unit. She had told friends in Oklahoma she was gay, but Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell made that impossible on the base. As she grew more aware of her gender dysphoria, she was left with nowhere to turn.

Eventually, her frustration bubbled out in an email to her supervisor, with the subject line “My Problem.” She attached the now-famous photograph of her behind the wheel of a car, wearing makeup and a long-haired wig. “The problem and the constant cover-up has worn me down to a point where it's always on my mind,” she wrote, “and makes my entire life feel like a bad dream that won't end.“ Later, the same supervisor would find Manning collapsed on the floor of a supply room, having carved two words into a nearby chair: “I want.”

The same supervisor would find Manning collapsed on the floor of a supply room, having carved two words into a nearby chair: “I want”

In the midst of it all, Manning was a computer-savvy private in a dysfunctional unit, growing ever more disillusioned with the war. Exploring the Pentagon’s classified SIPRNet network, she found video of a helicopter attack in Baghdad that had killed two Reuters employees. Another file showed a B-1 airstrike killing as many as 100 civilians in an Afghan village called Granai. She copied them to physical CDs and, within weeks, both found their way to WikiLeaks. She dug deeper, pulling hundreds of thousands of state department cables off the network, cables that would form the backbone of her prosecution.

Was Manning’s contact with Julian Assange made out of principle or desperation? We’ve seen both versions of the story rolled out for different purposes: framed as an idealist to rally supporters; cast as naive and penitent in court. At trial, her legal team put her forth as regretful, overwhelmed by the weight of what she’d done. “I look back at my decisions,” she told the court, “and wonder how could I, a junior analyst, possibly believe I could change the world.”

Her chat logs with Adrian Lamo, one of the most widely circulated documents from the case, show her swinging between both stances. “I’ve made a huge mess,” she says at one point. Then, turning to politics: “It’s important that it gets out…I feel, for some bizarre reason.” An hour and a half later, she swings back, “I’m a total fucking wreck right now.”

In the meantime, Chelsea herself was forced out of sight. It would be more than three years until she was brought to trial, the first year spent in intense isolation at the Marine Corps Brig in Quantico. Completely cut off, she struggled for even basic amenities like clothing and shoes. While she was on suicide watch, even her eyeglasses were forbidden. Her world was shrunk down to a six-by-twelve-foot cell.

Outside, the world went on. A few months after Manning’s arrest, the final US combat brigade withdrew from Iraq, signaling the end of Operation Iraqi Freedom. A year after Manning left Quantico, casualties from US drone strikes reached 3,000. In Hawaii, an NSA analyst named Edward Snowden watched video feeds from the strikes and began to plan his response. A Pentagon study from the same period would show the chain of command that authorized those strikes, shared by a whistleblower who has never been named.

When the movie version of WikiLeaks arrived, she was a bit part, shuffled on and offscreen in the course of a few minutes

WikiLeaks found new troubles and new enemies. With Manning out of the picture, Assange became the focal point, fending off a PayPal blockade and newly prominent rape charges. Those fights gained their own momentum — the embassy in London, the PayPal Five trial, the Russia ties — and Manning faded into the background. When the movie version of WikiLeaks arrived, she was a bit part, shuffled on and offscreen in the course of a few minutes. She seemed happy with the growing distance, recently saying her decision to leak to the group was “neither an endorsement nor an affiliation.”

Others were picking up where Chelsea left off. Six months after her arrest, an Anonymous group stole emails from the global intelligence firm Stratfor, leaking more than 5 million exchanges over the years to come. When news of her treatment at Quantico leaked, a similar group went after the facility’s employees with simpler harassment tactics. At trial, Chelsea said she couldn’t imagine leaks changing the world — but the leakers who came after her had seen the tactics work. They were following a trail she had cleared, although there’s no way of knowing if she would have approved.

The balance of power was shifting. In 2010, you could see a fight between the scrappy hackers and the evil empire — but after Guccifer, Sony Pictures, and breach after breach, the information war is harder to read. Can we still call Anonymous the underdog? Is the government wrong to be afraid?

Chelsea seems eager to exit the fight, or at least take a break from it. With over $100,000 raised by supporters in a Welcome Home fund, her immediate material needs will be met. But after two suicide attempts in the past year, it’s difficult to gauge the trauma she’s endured at Leavenworth. At some point in the future, she may return to join the larger fight for trans rights, or against the precedent set by her Espionage Act prosecution — but the first focus will be personal recovery. “There’s a hell of a lot of readjustment to be done,” says Naomi Colvin, who works with Manning’s support team through the Courage Foundation. “Immediately after release, she’s not going to be doing very much.”

The readjustment isn’t just for her, but for us. Chelsea the martyr is still a major figure for observers and supporters, but we’ve never had to make room for Chelsea the human being. She may not be interested in the image we’ve made of her, or she may be interested in ways we didn’t predict.

Chelsea herself, in what may be her last statement for a while, seemed to be writing the end of a chapter. “I am forever grateful to the people who kept me alive, President Obama, my legal team and countless supporters,” she wrote in a statement last week. “I hope to take the lessons that I have learned, the love that I have been given, and the hope that I have to work toward making life better for others.”

“For the first time,” she said, “I can see a future for myself as Chelsea.”