Army Pvt. Chelsea Manning walked out of the Fort Leavenworth Disciplinary Barracks at 2 a.m. Wednesday, freed from seven years of confinement but still an active-duty soldier.
That means an indefinite period of military-provided health benefits for Manning, the convicted intelligence leaker and transgender woman known as Bradley Manning when arrested May 2010.
After struggling to secure medical help for gender dysphoria while imprisoned at the facility for male inmates, Manning’s health needs could be substantial, say military and legal experts interviewed by The Star.
They contend the Army is merely following rules in extending to Manning, 29, active-duty benefits as it would any court-martialed service member returning to society.
Her attorney Nancy Holland recently declined to comment on Manning’s immediate plans or destination. Another lawyer representing her, Chase Strangio of the American Civil Liberties Union, told CNN that Manning is “very committted to living her life as free from the government as possible and taking care of her own health benefits and financial needs.”
A GoFundMe web page created in February by Strangio to “welcome home” Manning has raised more than $157,000.
With appeals of her 2013 conviction still unresolved in military court, “the Army has no choice but to wait” before officially cutting Manning from the ranks, said Eric L. Mayer, who practices military law in Overland Park but is not connected to the Manning case.
Only after final judgments are rendered — which may take a few years if the U.S. Supreme Court is petitioned — can military command “approve what I suspect will be a dishonorable discharge,” Mayer said. Such action would end Army privileges and prevent Manning from drawing on future veterans’ benefits.
Manning tweeted a photograph Wednesday morning of her feet in black sneakers stepping across a wood floor: “First steps of freedom!!”
The military court imposed a 35-year sentence on the former intelligence analyst after Manning’s trial on espionage charges of providing the website WikiLeaks more than 700,000 confidential documents pertaining to the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts.
President Barack Obama in January commuted the Oklahoma native’s sentence to seven years since her arrest. Noting that she already had served more time than other government leakers, Obama told reporters he chose not to grant Manning a pardon because he was not forgiving her for the crime.
In a tweet early this week, Manning said she was anticipating “the freedom of civilian life. … Now hunting for private #healthcare like millions of Americans.”
But the Army followed with a statement indicating that she for now would remain an uncompensated soldier “statutorily entitled to medical care while on excess leave in an active duty status.”
A Defense Department official on Tuesday told The Star that “excess leave” means being assigned to a military installation as an unpaid service member pending the processing of final disposition papers. The status continues for an indefinite period for court-martialed inmates who are freed with convictions “under appellate review.”
Typically, those people aren’t stationed on base, the official said. Yet their military ID cards remain valid, providing access not only to direct care at medical treatment facilities, but also to commissary and recreational privileges.
After Manning attempted suicide last year at Fort Leavenworth, the Army agreed to her pleas to be medically treated for gender reassignment, ultimately requiring surgery. Attorney Hollander last week said Manning had yet to undergo surgery.
Other lawyers told The Star they were uncertain that military benefits to active-duty troops even covered such procedures.
“This is a political hot potato. Nobody in government is going to want to do anything that would be discriminatory” against Manning, said William G. Eckhardt, professor emeritus at the University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Law. Eckhardt served on the prosecution team in the court martial of Army Lt. William Calley for his role in the 1968 My Lai Massacre.
Bill Cassara, a military defense lawyer in Georgia, said that while some critics of Obama’s clemency action may object to Manning seeking medical help from the military, “this is a non-story. By law Chelsea Manning is in the military, and by law Chelsea Manning is entitled to health benefits.”
Obama’s decision to commute her sentence spurred sharply divided reactions. Supporters hailed her a whistleblowing champion for war-zone civilians. Critics said Manning’s leaks threatened the lives of U.S. military members.
“Far as I know, it’s the first time an American president has granted clemency to a prisoner at Fort Leavenworth,” said John Reichley, a past president of the Fort Leavenworth Historical Society.
“This was about transgender,” he added.
President Donald Trump attacked the clemency in a tweet days after taking office. Trump described Manning as an “ungrateful traitor” who “should never have been released from prison.”
In Kansas City, about 20 Manning supporters attended a “Thank you, Chelsea!” rally Wednesday afternoon on the Country Club Plaza.
Organizer Henry Stoever of PeaceWorks invoked Trump’s own alleged actions in sharing top-secret material with Russian diplomats. “Who’s holding the president accountable?” Stoever asked.
Peace activist Sara Hazan held a placard declaring “I am Chelsea Manning.” Hazan has brought her homemade sign to rallies since 2013 — long enough for “Chelsea” to be taped over the name “Bradley.”
It’s not about transgender, said PeaceWorks demonstrator Lu Mountenay.
Rather, she said, it’s about conscience: “To be silent about war crimes is to be complicit.”
Left at Leavenworth
Among the more well-known of roughly 450 inmates at Fort Leavenworth’s military prison, Chelsea Manning leaves behind others whose crimes made big headlines, including:
▪ Army Staff Sgt. Robert Bales, serving a life sentence without parole for the murders of 16 civilians in Afghanistan.
▪ Army Maj. Nidal Hasan, facing a death penalty for his conviction in the deadly 2009 shooting rampage at Fort Hood, Texas.
▪ The “Leavenworth 10” combat soldiers jailed for crimes that their many supporters contend resulted from the fog of war, including shooting at and killing unarmed Iraqis.
▪ Timothy Hennis, Army, convicted in 2010 in the long-unresolved murders of a North Carolina woman and two of her daughters.
▪ Hasan K. Akbar, Army, convicted of killing two soldiers and 14 other colleagues at a Kuwaiti camp in retaliation for the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.