January 2017 – as one of his final acts in office, President Obama yesterday commuted the 35-year prison sentence of Chelsea Manning down to just four years with a scheduled release date of 17 May 2017. For supporters, it must have been an unbelievable victory, and for her critics, an outrage. For those that have known her, there’s an added dimension of anecdotes, personal interactions, and concrete memories of her conduct, all of which color the quality of that commutation. She is a hero to some, a traitor to others. Either she was an idealistic do-gooder who was intent on revealing state-sponsored human rights violations while exposing the darkest corners of the U.S. Government, or she was a coward suffering delusions of grandeur who invented enemies to blame, lashed out at her own country, and revealed nothing but her own self-sponsored narcissism. Which one is accurate? Let me tell you a story.
In the Manning saga, the debate has always been over her state of mind leading up to and during the theft and dissemination of that classified information. There is no debate regarding the basic facts of what she did and what was done with her. During her 2009-2010 deployment to Iraq, she stole diplomatic cables, daily intelligence reports, and combat footage; she fed that information to the anti-secrecy website WikiLeaks, then separately admitted to as much to a grey-hat hacker named Adrian Lamo, who in-turn contacted U.S. Army Counterintelligence. She was convicted in 2013 on 17 original charges and four more amended charges, including violating the Espionage Act, for her role in illegally disclosing over 700,000 pages of classified documents. To date, Manning has been tried, convicted, imprisoned, and as of yesterday, scheduled for release.
As such, Manning has been a specter in the background of the Obama presidency and a central figure in national debates about everything from Iraq War policy, to the security practices of the Intelligence Community, to the weaponization of information, all the way to conversations about how the LGBTQ community is treated both in and outside the military. Likely few-to-none would have predicted such an unassuming person would be at the center of so much controversy. That is, unless you met her when she first joined the Army and she started down a trajectory toward infamy. In hindsight, maybe it was obvious.
Chelsea Manning and I enlisted in the U.S. Army during the Surge in the fall of 2007 and attended the same U.S. Army Basic Combat Training (BCT) at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri. As new recruits, we were assigned to Charlie Company, 82d Chemical Battalion, 3d Chemical Brigade. Training began 12 OCT and for me, it ended 14 DEC. For Manning, however, graduation from Charlie Company never came. Her problems began the moment she arrived on station.
During Reception and Integration, Drill Sergeants conducted what is known as “the Shark Attack”: the company’s entire Drill Sergeant cadre descends on a busload of new recruits to welcome them to their home for the next nine weeks. It is intense and it is intentionally disorienting. If the recruit displays any emotion, non-verbal reaction, or any appearance of weakness, they will immediately receive the unrelenting attention of the Cadre. They probe for mental weakness and emotional triggers, assessing who will likely need the most shaping, molding, and mentoring. To ensure sufficient stress during this event, our Cadre’s Shark Attack was enabled by a simple instruction: hold your duffel bag in front of your face. Do not let it drop below your eyes.
Every recruit had the same packing list with the same items in that green duffel bag. They all weighed the same amount. Whether you were 6’4” or 5’4”, male or female, all recruits had to carry their own weight. Understand, that no one breezes through this exercise – everybody hurts, everyone drops their bag at least once, and everyone pays the price for it, including myself. During this exercise, Manning’s problem wasn’t that she was too small or not strong enough. The problem was, she quit. As the rest of the platoon faced one way, gritting their teeth and baring it, whispering words of encouragement to each other, she stood at an about-face the opposite direction, and said she simply could not pick up her own bag.
After the first day, lights came on promptly at 04:20AM every morning, accompanied by the booming voice of a Drill Sergeant blasting through the intercom system, announcing the uniform of the day. By 04:30 we were expected to have bunks made, personal hygiene conducted (clean shaven, teeth brushed, pit stick applied, etc.), wall lockers secured, and already be outside, in formation, waiting for the Drill Sergeants to initiate Accountability Report and then Physical Training (PT).
No one could accomplish all of those tasks in ten minutes. Therefore as a matter of custom everyone woke up at 04:00AM and silently conducted their business in the dark. At 04:20 when the uniform of the day was put out, half the company would...
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