Chelsea Manning was released from prison this morning. The former military intelligence analyst was detained seven years ago during her deployment in Iraq, and remained in government custody until today. Manning was persecuted for her decision to leak classified data documenting the military occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan—data she believed illustrated the "true cost of war."
"It is incredible to witness Chelsea Manning's freedom after having seen and worked with her behind bars for four years," said Chase Strangio, one of Manning's lawyers with the ACLU. "Chelsea has emerged with grace, resilience, and an inspiring amount of love for others. I am humbled to fight alongside such a fierce advocate for justice."
Read more: 'It's Hard to Show the World I Exist': Chelsea Manning's Final Plea to Be Seen
Manning's story is about the public's right to government transparency, especially when it comes to the international taking of innocent lives. When she chose to transmit hundreds of thousands of classified documents to WikiLeaks in the winter of 2010, she did so based on her deep belief in the public's right to know the truth about their country's global actions. Many believe Manning's actions to be treasonous, and this was demonstrated at her trial: She received a shockingly unprecedented sentence of 35 years—far more than any other convicted whistleblower in history. To countless others, however, Manning is seen as a courageous American who sacrificed her freedom to ensure the sanctity of our democratic state.
After her trial in 2013, Manning publicly came out as trans and began an arduous, horrific battle for medical care in confinement. During her service, Manning had struggled with gender dysphoria, and her supporters believe the military failed her during her deployment in the Middle East by failing to get her help. There had been many signs that Manning was in pain, and she formally reached out in an email to her superiors on April 24, 2010, shortly before her arrest.
At trial, Manning's superior officer testified that he didn't pass that message onto military commanders because he "really didn't think at the time that having a picture floating around of one of my soldiers in drag was in the best interests of the intel mission."
On Instagram, Chelsea Manning posted a photo of her first steps of freedom.
That sort of callous, dismissive attitude reoccurred throughout Manning's incarceration. During her first year in custody, Manning was placed in solitary confinement and subjected to treatment that was later deemed to be "cruel and inhuman," according to a UN investigator. Over the following seven years, Manning was forced to fight legal battles to change her name and obtain basic medical care, such as hormone replacement therapy. The military still recognizes her as male—meaning that she was kept in a men's prison, and had to comply to the standards of male prisoners, including having her head forcibly shaved on a regular basis.
By mid-2016, Manning had already served six years of her sentence. In early 2016, the military finally agreed to provide her with the gender confirmation surgery—but she waited months without any guarantee of when, or if, she would receive the procedure. This uncertainty, combined with the the strain of imprisonment, caused her mental state to deteriorate. She tried to kill herself twice; by the end of 2016, her lawyer Chase Strangio felt that if she weren't set free, she would not survive in prison.
In January, as one of his final acts as president, Barack Obama commuted Manning's sentence to time served, meaning that she would be released within a matter of months—today, May 17, 2017—instead of decades from now.
This morning, Manning stepped outside of Fort Leavenworth Prison in Kansas for the first time. "After another anxious four months of waiting, the day has finally arrived," Manning said in her first public statement since being released. "I am looking forward to so much! Whatever is ahead of me is far more important than the past. I'm figuring things out right now—which is exciting, awkward, fun, and all new for me."
With Chelsea Manning's release, America has regained an advocate that we need now more than ever, and Manning is able to live her life freely for this first time. Her true identity is no longer stymied by her upbringing, nor is it forcibly denied behind bars. Though many of us know Manning's story, we do not yet know her—and now, for the first time, we'll get the chance to.
Illustration by Julia Kuo.