WASHINGTON — Convicted national-security secret leaker Army Pvt. Chelsea Manning became the most visible face of the military's tiny transgender population, one that came from the shadows to the forefront when the Pentagon rescinded its ban on their open service last summer.
Manning's journey from low-level Army intelligence analyst to notoriety for disclosing national security secrets to high-profile crusader for transgender rights paralleled the growing social acceptance of the small population of Americans who don't identify with their gender at birth. Previously known as Bradley, Manning, 29, has more than 100,000 followers on her Twitter account.
Manning, who divulged massive amounts of information to WikiLeaks, had her sentence commuted Tuesday by President Obama. She has been serving a 35-year sentence at the Army's prison at Fort Leavenworth in Kansas and had been eligible for parole in about six years.
It was nearly two years ago that the Army, in a memo obtained by USA TODAY, agreed to provide Manning with hormone treatment to allow her to transition to a woman. The commandant of the Fort Leavenworth Disciplinary Barracks concluded that providing the hormones was necessary for Manning's health. Allowing her to grow her hair out was not.
Only by virtue of being an Army prisoner was Manning, still a soldier while incarcerated, able to acknowledge publicly her transition to a woman and to receive treatment. Any other member of the military would have been discharged from service. In another disconnect, the Veterans Affairs Department had been approving treatment for transgender veterans for years.
The Pentagon changed that inconsistency in its policy last summer when Defense Secretary Ash Carter announced repeal of the ban, and plans to allow troops to receive treatment, including reassignment surgery.
By the end of 2016, more than 100 troops had informed their superiors that they wanted to transition to the opposite sex, be recognized in their new gender or were seeking counseling or treatment. A RAND Corp. study estimated that there may be about 6,600 transgender troops among the active-duty force of 1.3 million members. Treating transgender troops could cost as much as $8 million per year, and up to $50,000 per case.
Manning, by September, had received assurances that she was a candidate for reassignment surgery, according to her lawyers at the American Civil Liberties Union. She had been on a hunger strike, protesting the Army's delay in providing the treatment, which had been prescribed by her doctors. Manning had also attempted to commit suicide twice last year.
President-elect Donald Trump has not made known whether he agrees with the Pentagon's new policy on transgender troops. It can be reversed.