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Bradley Manning trial revealed a lonely soldier with a troubled past

In the course of his trial, the defence argued Manning had the odds stacked against him – even from before he was born

Paul Lewis in Fort Meade
The Guardian, Wednesday 21 August 2013 16.00 BST
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Bradley Manning's defence team claimed the odds were stacked against the soldier before he was even born.

To his supporters, Bradley Manning is a folk hero; a man who, through strength of conscience, risked and ultimately sacrificed his liberty to reveal the truth about America's modern wars.

His sentence of 35 years in military prison is unlikely to change that. But in a series of hearings at the Fort Meade military base, another, more tragic, portrait emerged: that of a lonely and confused young soldier who was neglected terribly in childhood.

Much of Manning's life – his gender identity disorder, tendency toward emotional outbursts and loneliness – has been well documented.

But the full extent of Manning's apparent suffering as a young boy was not known until it was raised in court, as part of his defence team's mitigation.

They claimed the odds were stacked against Manning before he was even born. His aunt, Deborah van Alstyne, a rare figure of adult stability in his life, recalled her reaction the day she discovered his mother was pregnant with her second child.

"I thought to myself: oh, no," she said. "Because I knew she had been drinking really heavily." Susan was by then more than three months into her pregnancy, and when Manning was born, weighing just over six pounds, he had characteristics of an infant with fetal alcohol syndrome.

If his mother's alcoholism explains Manning's tiny frame – the 25-year-old is just 5'2" tall – his care as an infant may have exacerbated the problem.

Van Alstyne, who works as an attorney for Fannie Mae and lives in Maryland, said that Manning was still only being fed baby food when he was two years old.

"We thought that was very odd, and he was so tiny," she said.

Manning's mother, Susan, from Wales, and her husband Brian – Van Alstyne's brother – refused to give the child more substantial food. "They would buy those bigger jars of baby food and that's what he was eating," his aunt said. "That and milk."

Manning's sister, Casey Major, painted a disturbing picture of an upbringing by neglectful parents who, although never malicious, left their children to fend for themselves.

When Manning was still an infant, the family lived in a hotel and a rented house in Phoenix, Arizona. Major, who was 11 when her brother was born, said she took the role of parent.

"In the middle of the night I would get up and make a bottle, change a diaper, rock him back to sleep," she said. "My mom wasn't getting up. My dad wasn't getting up."

Major said both her parents had a problem with alcohol, but her father managed to function well enough to hold down his job as a computer programmer.

It was harder for Susan, who drank "hard liquor – usually rum or vodka" every day from the moment she woke up. Asked in court if there was a point during the day when their mother stopped drinking, Major replied: "Not that I recall. It was continuous until she passed out or went to bed."

When Manning was still a baby, the family relocated to Crescent, Oklahoma, living in a rural home with hardly any neighbours. Almost totally isolated, Manning had few, if any, friends and spent nearly all of his time building Lego blocks or playing on the computer.

Major moved out of the house when she was 18, leaving Manning, then aged seven, alone with two alcoholic parents.

A number of shocking episodes were relayed to court to give an insight into the hardship endured by the two children. Recalling an occasion when her mother became violent, Major said she pushed her mother away, in self-defence.

"She fell and hit her tailbone. And she was lying on the floor," she said. "And I turned and Brad was right there. He had seen the whole thing."

When her mother, who could not move, yelled profanities at her from the floor, Major said she threw a blanket over her and told her brother to return to bed.

"Then just a few minutes later I could hear her calling: 'Brad, Brad'. And Brad had gone in there and she was wanting him to get her drink that was over on the table."

In 1998, when Manning was 12, his parents separated, and his mother attempted suicide.

Major had by then been forced to return home, and was on hand to rush her mother to the hospital. Her father refused to sit on the back seat to check she was still breathing.

"Unfortunately my 12-year-old brother had to go back there and make sure his mom was still breathing," she said. "And my dad didn't want to drive because he had been drinking. So I had to drive."

After the suicide attempt, Susan began receiving psychiatric care. Brian left the family home. By 2001, after the parents divorced, Susan returned to her native Wales, taking Manning with her.

Manning spent four years in Wales, enrolling in a local school. He returned to the US in 2005, aged 17, to live with his father and his father's new wife.

He did not get on with his stepmother and within a year was kicked out of the house.

He spent a few days sleeping on a couch at his sister's home, but felt he was a burden, so left. He spent a few months living in Chicago before running out of money.

The single period of Manning's life that appears to have been settled occurred shortly after, when he lived with Van Alstyne at her home in Maryland. He was by then 18 years old and openly gay, but struggling with gender identity disorder.

He enrolled in college, got a regular job at Starbucks and, according to his aunt, was becoming a responsible, alert young man who "looked after himself because nobody ever looked after him".

"He followed things in the world. He liked to talk about what was going on in the world. He liked to talk about current events," she said. "I think the thing that I noticed the most was that it was hard to get him to sit down for meals. He always wanted to eat at McDonald's. And he lived on caffeinated beverages."

In September 2007, Manning asked to go for dinner with Van Alstyne, "just the two of us".

"Almost right after we sat down, he said, 'I joined the army,'" Van Alstyne recalls. "And I said, 'You what? Brad, I don't think that's a good fit for you, I really don't.'"

Manning told his aunt he enrolled in the military to qualify for the educational scholarships that would pay for his university, his main ambition.

That may not have been the only reason. Years later, an email Manning sent his sergeant, containing a picture of himself in a wig, dressed as his female alter ego, Breanna, gave some insight into his motives.

Entitled 'My Problem', Manning wrote in the email that he had hoped his military career would get rid of his gender disorder.

Whatever combination of reasons for choosing a career in the military, that decision changed Manning's life – and, in some ways, altered the course of US history.

On 1 October 2007, Manning reported to the entrance of Maryland's sprawling Fort Meade military base, near Baltimore. He must have been one of the smallest, and perhaps most ill-suited recruits ever to turn up at Fort Meade. But he was destined to become its most famous soldier.

On Tuesday, six years after he arrived, full of hope, as a 19-year-old recruit, Manning was back at the same military base. This time, he was sitting in the dock, dressed in full, military fatigue, awaiting a sentence for the biggest leak in US military history.


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