Chelsea Manning 7: Basic Training

On October 2, 2007, Chelsea Manning reported to Fort Leonard Wood, a US Army base in the state of Missouri. (1 ) She was there for “basic training,” ten weeks of harsh discipline, rigorous exercise, and instruction. The purpose of basic training is to turn ordinary people into soldiers, to teach them to endure hardship and pain, to fight courageously and, above all, to obey the orders of their superior officers. Not all the recruits who go through basic training succeed; many are rejected and eventually sent back to civilian life.

Things did not go well for Chelsea in basic training. In a statement written in 2013 for use at her trial, she wrote, “Once at Fort Leonard Wood, I quickly realized that I was neither physically nor mentally prepared” for basic training.“ (9, 2) Chelsea suffered because she was so short — just under 160 centimeters. She also suffered because she was argumentative and unwilling to accept authority: When drill sergeants yelled at her during a training session, instead of silently trying to improve her performance, she yelled back — and soon the drill sergeants were sarcastically calling her “General Manning.”

She must also have suffered because of her sexuality at Fort Leonard Wood. Since having returned to the US from Wales she had been openly living as a gay male: she had become used to being able to talk to close friends about her sexuality, but now she was living at close quarters with men she did not know and whom she thought were ignorant and prejudiced. Certainly she was prejudiced herself, and even contemptuous toward her companions: chatting, later, to a friend online she complained of how “the army threw me in the forests of Missouri for ten weeks...with fifty twanging people from places like Texas, Alabama, Georgia and the hell did I put myself through? ” (5, 4)

In addition to the lack of sympathetic companionship, Chelsea had to put up with the Army’s “Don’t-ask-don’t-tell” policy. (9) This policy had come into effect in 1993. It was a compromise solution to a long debate about whether a ban on gays in the armed forces should be continued or abandoned. While this policy was in effect — it was abandoned in 2011 — recruiters and superior officers were not allowed to ask any questions about soldiers’ sexual orientation, but even so, anyone engaging in homosexual activity or talking about their own homosexual orientation could be discharged.

On top of all her other difficulties, Chelsea hurt her foot and shoulder. According to her pre-trial written statement that is why, after only six weeks she was removed from the program.(8, 2) She was placed in a “Discharge Unit” — a kind of holding area for recruits who, the Army has decided, are not fit to become soldiers. Despite what she said later, however, it seems clear that her being sent to the Discharge Unit had something to do with her inability to accept discipline and also to her being bullied because she was small, saucy, and gay. (1) In any case, things were certainly even worse for her in the Discharge Unit. Her situation there was vividly described by another soldier who later gave a long interview to the British paper, The Guardian.

The kid was barely 5 feet — He was a runt. And by military standards and compared with everyone who was around there — he was a runt... “He’s a runt so pick on him,” or “He’s crazy so pick on him,” or “He’s a faggot so pick on him” (7)

And this soldier goes into some detail to show how cruel Chelsea’s tormentors could be and how Chelsea tried to protect herself against them:

There were guys refusing to go in the showers when he was even in the damn latrine. I mean, it was childish and it was hateful and this guy wasn’t big enough to just stand up in your face and say: “Knock it off — quit picking on me", and I’ll be damned but he tried. You know there were several times which everyone called “emotional outbursts and tantrums.” But what it was was him saying, “Leave me alone.”(7)

The soldier interviewed by The Guardian also explains that, at any one time, there were approximately a hundred recruits in the Discharge Unit waiting to be sent home — and that, although it was possible for the Army to change its mind and “recycle” one of these rejected recruits before actually discharging him or her, this was a very rare occurrence. The soldier speaks of his surprise when, sometime after being sent home himself, he got a phone call from a friend still in the Unit, telling him that Chelsea had been recycled.

The system failed. They let him down: he should never have been recycled...Bradley was not a soldier. Bradley was never a soldier. Bradley is never going to be a soldier...He’s not somebody who should be protecting people. He is somebody who needs protecting.(7)

The interviewed soldier also offered an explanation of why it was that the Army was willing to offer Chelsea a second chance even though she did not fit in to the military.

I know for a fact that in 2007 recruiting numbers were the lowest they had ever been. They were lowering recruitment standards like crazy. I mean, facial tatoos, too tall, too short, too fat, criminal record — it didn’t matter. They even upped the age limit. You could be 42 years old and still enlist for basic training.(7)

The interviewed soldier doesn’t mention the possibility that Chelsea’s valuable computer skills were the reason she was recycled. He does mention though that his friend told him that Chelsea was happy about getting another chance. And that fits in well with something she said in her pre-trial statement more than five years later:

There, she doesn’t actually mention the Discharge Unit but speaks of being put on “hold status” because of her injuries and during that period being “informed that I may be out-processed from the Army.” She goes on to say that she “resisted” because she felt she could overcome her problems and “continue to serve.”(8)

In any case, after a brief period of leave which she spent with her aunt in Washington, D.C., she re-entered basic training on January 20, 2008. This time she succeeded. She completed the program on April 7, 2008.