Impressions and Notes From a Day at the Chelsea Manning (formerly Bradley Manning) Trial

Impressions and Notes From a Day at the Chelsea Manning (formerly Bradley Manning) Trial

Sketch of Chelsea Manning's trial. (Drawing by Clark Stoeckley)
Sketch of Chelsea Manning's trial. (Drawing by Clark Stoeckley)


Note: So much has happened since I first wrote this on day 34 of the trial on Tuesday, August 13, 2013, including Manning’s sentencing, her closing statement, and post-trial request to refer to her by her new name as she transitions to living as a woman. Out of respect, I have gone back and changed names and pronouns (except in the italicized sections where I quote others at that time). This article is a personal commentary with notes from the day in trial that I witnessed; my reflections on race, class, and radical mental health are at the end.


“I want people to see the truth … regardless of who they are … because without information, you cannot make informed decisions as a public.” – Chelsea Manning weeks after she leaked the “Collateral Murder” video and just days before military police arrived to arrest her on May 29, 2010.


I feel that I have gone through an emotional ordeal. And it's been just ONE day, one day, of my life, that I visited what Chelsea Manning has been going through since June 3, when her trial finally started after being held for three years, one of those years in solitary confinement. I was there at her trial in Fort Meade, 9:30 am to 5 pm today, and I feel sick from the constant stream of questions. I’ve never heard so many questions in all my life. The day was long, emotional; intense; boring at times; and riveting at others. I was glad to flee at the end of the day to eat: to see the sun, the blue, the clouds, finally to come home to my home. I want to be clear, I in no way blame Manning, from the comforts of my home, for apologizing for her actions in exposing war crimes: I would be completely out of line to do so! That didn’t stop her personal statement, when it came, after hours of grueling testimony, to hit like a karate chop in the guts.

Arriving in Camp Meade

I got a ride to Camp Meade with activists from Baltimore. They told me this was the day Chelsea would testify, a big day in a long case where she has been kept silent and no one has heard her voice, besides the one smuggled out recording where she said this was an act of consciousness. They said she was well spoken and clear in what she had done and why, but that the prosecutors had tried to paint her as someone who had no friends, who was shy and isolated, which was not true. One of my travel companions, Ryan, told us how mental health issues are often used against soldiers. For example, bogus pre-existing conditions are claimed so veterans can be denied benefits. Interestingly enough, half of today would turn out to be testimony from psychiatrists.

This was the first time I had come to the court. There were members of the Bradley Manning Support Network, many local, older, predominately white peace activist who came to support her, and folks from outside of Maryland as well, donning black t-shirts with the word “truth” written on them to sit in the courtroom.

At the beginning of each day they announced how many people were there to watch. Manning's lawyer had stated it gave her support. As someone who remembers with shock when the Collateral Murder video was released 3 years ago, which exposed a U.S. Apache helicopter crew in Iraq delightedly firing upon unarmed civilians, I felt like I should come be a witness. Knowing that only those of us in attendance would ever hear this, as recording devices were forbidden from the courthouse, I took notes all day long. I will include my notes in this essay, as a “word sketch,” similar to how many artists sat in the courtroom and sketched since cameras were not permitted. My individual perspective is as a fresh face in this case where many have worked to support her for long.

Navigating our way from Baltimore city, to the suburbs, and onto the army base was unfamiliar territory for most of us. Yet I felt an immediate familiarity. This was a world I knew. My grandmother lived in this area and had been proud to be a secretary for a doctor, at Fort Meade, when she was younger. My mother’s first job options were between Fort Meade, Curtis Bay, and Westinghouse and she got the job at Westinghouse where they replied first. She met my father who was a technical writer there. When I was eight we moved to a base in Germany, where my father worked for the military.

I know that all these people working for a paycheck do not always agree with their superiors, or even believe in the objectives of their employers—although they won’t publicly state it or deeply consider these issues either.

The soldiers in fatigues who guided us to the overflow cabin (the courthouse and overflow trailer were full!) were very polite, helpful and friendly. The activists were also extremely friendly as they greeted and oriented us. It reminded me again of my childhood experiences overseas, that sense of belonging and community among fellow Americans, which many struggled with once they came back to the U.S. and/or left the military and were suddenly left alone to figure out everything on their own.

First Psychiatrist

Not having the pressure of being in the courthouse, or the ability to send Chelsea Manning good vibes, we settled into the cabin with our notebooks and sketchpads, after young men in fatigues went through our personal belongings. It felt less intrusive than airport security. One of the soldiers commented “this is cool” to a woman’s duct tape wallet. She in return offered a friendly explanation how her boyfriend made it for her.

When we sat down to the trial a friendly air continued as we watched the lawyer joke with the psychiatrist when he needed his reading glasses, “I’m fighting that myself” and “nice glasses”—created chuckles all around. This comment gave a sense of humanity in a serious place. When would the questioning turn hard and to what end was this friendliness? I thought.

The questioning began. A friendly interrogation, where everyone answered anything asked, that lasted all day. Actually the questions began even earlier, from a personal perspective, from when our car entering the checkpoint of the military base: we were asked for our identification cards as well as the car’s title and paperwork. The driver of our party told the security officer that we were going to the trial, offered this information without him even asking for her destination, then afterwards joked/worried her mother’s work car would be on a secret file now.

These are my notes from the first psychiatrist’s testimony:

Are these your notes?
Did he have issues at work?
Trust issues?

He was a bit guarded with me at first. But we always worry—anyone spilling their guts at first sight is never a good sign; nor is total guardedness.

The psychiatrist went through a long period of answering questions to identifying his background, schooling, and credentials.

The psychiatrist seemed to not remember many things, relying on his notes, and also on diagnosis, criteria, had a strong sense of profession and kept to it. He was on the spot after all. I didn’t realize the questioning lawyer was the defense lawyer and thought that he was trying to trick the psychiatrist.  I kept expecting it to turn out like a TV show where three seemingly unrelated facts are joined into a shocking conclusion. But no, each question just led to another question. There was no small detail left unturned as they tried to paint a fair assessment of her mental health.

I was surprised that a psychiatrist could reveal all one’s personal records. Isn’t there something called a doctor-patient confidentiality? And if this is the case, well of course one would be guarded when sent to the psychiatrist in the army. So being guarded seemed to me like a good response. Actually, everything they said about Chelsea Manning didn’t seem out of place. What became clear to us was everything, and I do mean everything, a human feels can be a diagnosis. I doubt anyone could stand up under that scrutiny. It would just depend who was scrutinizing and for what end. Where was this all leading?

Anxiety disorder
Questioning his identity
At first I wrote he may have a personality issue, but later ruled out personality issue
Continued being guarded
Typically people resist or deflect hot topic buttons issues
Persistent anxiety about performance
Concern about his job
Hypersensitivity/super critical of self—“don’t remember why I noted it. Something like, he was never good enough”
Discuss future plans: go to school, maintain security clearance as it opens up a lot of doors
Personality disorder
To be honest I don’t remember why I wrote this. Probably it was a non-specified personality disorder. This is a horrible/catch all diagnosis.
He would talk about the Intel world. People moving for power and what is power.
He would stop and think about what he said before he said it, like I am, careful about what he was projecting. Still filtering. Guarded.

Well, hot damn, no doubt! I think, hearing all this read out in court. Is there no doctor-patient confidentiality in the military?

he continued to resist issues
the Intell world is pretty isolating, limiting what you can share
I was his therapist but he was still guarded with me
Who does he share with?
Occupational diagnosis.
The workplace became more of an issue, how isolated he felt.
He kept doing the same thing and expecting different results. He was not real flexible.
He talked about his relationship ending. Problems and then they broke up. That was his first relationship. That he felt alone.

Did he share any gender issues?

We did talk about some gender issues.

Gender identity disorder
Criteria to meet this diagnosis was enough to meet it
Email from exhibit
I think it further isolated him and made him have to think how to fit in
At that point the military was less friendly to gays.
Again – he was taking a chance with that to tell me
He could have been court marshaled.
So to share that with anyone was extremely difficult.
I think he had little to no support base in a hyper-masculine environment
It appeared he felt better after sharing his gender identity disorder
It was a relief
Gender is a core issue
In the future I don’t think it will be so much

Could this process make someone feel alone, to struggle, in the workplace?


Does explain the initial trust issues
Hard to say, could be a lot of things, but that could be a big one
It’s an extremely difficult thing, gender issues in a military environment

Pattern of problematic, issues, red flags.

At this point it was close to lunchtime. We broke for a short while and came back with questions from the prosecution, which struck us as comical since the prosecutor seemed so very unintelligent. He seemed unknowing of mental health issues and looking for any road to take the context and use it to their benefit.

This questioning was shorter.

My notes from the prosecution are:

Did he think he was special?

Defense: “I don’t think we ever talked about ‘special’.”

I had been suspicious of the defense lawyer, at first, when I hadn’t realized he was on Manning’s side: thinking that his line of calm sensible questioning was going to be used to boomerang this all into insanity. But life isn’t actually that tricky.

The prosecutor wasn’t very slick; he actually sounded pretty stupid.

He tried to get the psychiatrist to read something that was buried in a pile of papers. When he couldn’t properly point out what he wanted the psychiatrist to read, the judge asked him to state it in a question. The prosecutor then questioned the psychiatrist about Manning calling her fellow soldiers “ignorant rednecks” (where, it wasn’t clear. In an email or a forum?).

The psychiatrist paused and said calmly:

“I can’t say I haven’t called my peers in [the] military rednecks . . . when I was frustrated.”

Everyone laughed. This felt pretty wild when he said that. And maybe the psychiatrist was on Manning’s side, or he was being fair and professional. He was very careful in how he answered questions.

He was questioned more about if someone says they are super-intelligent—if that means that they are a narcissist.

The lawyer was trying to conclude that Manning was in fact an anti-social narcissist who thought he was better then everyone else.

It was a long morning of grilling and I still wondered where it was all going and why all of this was happening before Manning's speech. Many seemed to feel this line of questioning made Manning seem sympathetic, that she was a young person that had made a wrong decision under stress. I didn’t understand this, because for one, I thought Manning was on trial because of the information that she leaked. And I did not feel comfortable with this intense examination of her mental health. Although like everyone, I felt I learned something more about psychiatry.


China Martens is interested in radical working class/low income/no income/poor white anti-racist history. Martens is a co-editor of “Don’t Leave Leave Your Friends Behind: Concrete Ways to Support Families in Social Justice Movements and Communities” and currently collaborating with Alexis Pauline Gumbs and Mai’a Williams to create “This Bridge Called My Baby: Legacies of Radical Mothers.”