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Chelsea Manning, still on active duty, is freed from Fort Leavenworth

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Pvt. Chelsea Manning was released Wednesday, May 17, 2017, from disciplinary barracks at Fort Leavenworth. Her 35-year court-martial sentence was commuted in January by President Barack Obama. (U.S. Army Handout/Rex Shutterstock/Zuma Press/TNS)
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KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Army Pvt. Chelsea Manning was released from the Fort Leavenworth Disciplinary Barracks under the cover of night early Wednesday, freed from seven years of confinement.

The military offered no details on Manning’s release, which was ordered in the final days of the Obama administration. Nor would officials say where she was headed, in respect for her security and privacy, said Army Lt. Col. Jennifer Johnson.

In any event, Manning remains 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 in May 2010.

After struggling to secure medical help for gender dysphoria while imprisoned at a facility for male inmates, Manning’s health needs could be substantial, say military and legal experts interviewed by the Kansas City 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 transitioning back to society.

“The Army has no choice” until still-unresolved appeals of her 2013 conviction run their course, said Eric L. Mayer, who practices military law in Overland Park but is not connected to the Manning case.

Only when appeals are exhausted — and that might include petitioning the U.S. Supreme Court — 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 walking across a wood floor: “First steps of freedom!!”

Her attorney, Nancy Hollander, declined to comment on Manning’s immediate plans or destination.

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 his last week in office 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 Monday, 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 persons 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.

Last fall the Army agreed to Manning’s demands in a lawsuit to medically treat her at Fort Leavenworth for gender dysphoria, which ultimately would require surgery. Hollander said last week Manning had yet to undergo surgery.

Other lawyers told The Star they were uncertain that military benefits to active-duty troops 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.”

On Wednesday, a GoFundMe web page to “welcome home” Manning had raised more than $150,000.

The January decision to commute her sentence spurred sharply divided reactions. Obama said he granted clemency partly because Manning had gone to trial and taken responsibility for her crime.

Supporters, who hailed her a whistleblower for war-zone civilians, cheered the news and funded Manning’s legal support. Critics said her 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.”

But in promoting a “Thank you, Chelsea!” rally Wednesday afternoon on the Country Club Plaza, the local leader of PeaceWorks invoked Trump’s own alleged actions in recent sharing of top-secret material.

“President Trump has shared classified information, and no one is holding him accountable,” said Henry Stoever, the advocacy group’s chairman. “Chelsea has served seven years in prison.”

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