Chelsea Manning’s heroic hunger strike

Note: Since this interview was conducted, Chelsea Manning has ended her hunger strike, saying, “I am unendingly relieved that the military is finally doing the right thing … I hope this sets a precedent for the thousands of trans people behind me hoping they will be given the treatment they need.”

Transcribed by Joe Delaplaine

The following is a rush transcript of the Sept. 12 episode of Loud & Clear with Brian Becker on Radio Sputnik. Copy may not be in its final form. Click here to listen to the episode.

Brian Becker (BB): You are listening to “Loud and Clear”, I’m Brian Becker. Whistleblower Chelsea Manning, in prison for 35 years, has started a hunger strike protesting what she calls bullying on the part of the U.S. government and prison system. [Manning is] demanding, “Dignity, respect and Humanity.” Will the government grant her demands?

We are joined by journalist and anti-war activist, Michael Prysner. A former U.S. soldier who was part of the U.S. occupation of Iraq. Welcome back, Mike.

Michael Prysner (MP): Hey, Brian, thanks for having me.

BB: Chelsea Manning has said she is ready for a hunger strike that may go on until her death. She said, “In response to virtually every request, I have been granted limited –if any– dignity and respect, just more pain and anguish. I am no longer asking, now I am demanding.”

What have been her requests and reasons for this action?

MP: As you have said, in her own words, these “minimum standards of dignity, respect and humanity.”

A huge part of it is the constant bullying she is receiving, both from guards and from other inmates there at Fort Leavenworth.

But, these requests are very basic rights. For example, [the Military prison allowing her to] grow hair out; having access to the necessary hormones for her transition; and an end to the bullying and punishment for her suicide attempt.

And she’s quite serious about this, she even signed and submitted a “Do Not Resuscitate” letter, if she goes into a coma as a result of the hunger strike. So you can see that she is quite serious.

If you look into her past a little more, she has talked and written about her father [for] her entire life beating her for not being “masculine enough” and telling her to “suck it up.” And she did, for her whole life, and she did in the military, probably the hardest place to “suck it up” if you’re a transperson.

But now she’s taking a stand, that she’s no longer asking. She’s no longer going to “suck it up,” and this is the end-of-the-line for her. It’s quite courageous.

BB: Chelsea Manning is a hero. Born Bradley Edward Manning in 1987. Chelsea Manning was the individual who released to Wikileaks tens of thousands of classified –or unclassified but sensitive– military and diplomatic documents that proved the U.S. war in Iraq –proved beyond any doubt I mean we have lots of other indications and evidence of proof– but these revelations certainly proved it. It was a war crime, that war crimes were committed, crimes against humanity were committed. The killing of civilians of journalists took place. That there was no accountability.

And here we have Chelsea Manning in prison for 35 years for telling the truth. While the criminals who conducted the war in Iraq, who committed the crimes, who authorized it… they’re running around making speeches,  appearing on TV doing quite well. How do you feel about it?

MP: It’s completely outrageous especially today when we see that every politician has to say they were against the Iraq War, or they [now] admit it was a mistake.

Both presidential candidates, Trump and Clinton, have to either lie and say they are really against it in the beginning, or apologize for it and say it was a “mistake.” Every president candidate in the primaries had to do the same thing.

So now something that is widely accepted as –at the very least a complete disastrous mistake, but at worst and intentional grave crime against humanity.

Even though this is accepted across the board, the person  who played probably the biggest role in ending the war, has received a life sentence.

We can’t overstate the role Chelsea played in ending the Iraq War. It was those leaks that revealed –not just to the American people, but to the Iraqi people– the complete impunity for U.S. soldiers and the widespread crimes and abuses they were committing, primarily against civilians.

So this revelation [by Manning], I mean, many of us forget that when the Iraq War was –so-called– “ended by Obama,” many in the Obama Administration were trying to extend it. Or trying to keep soldiers there. People like Hillary Clinton, people like Robert Gates, were going to Iraq and trying to convince the Iraqi government to sign an extended “Status of Forces” agreement to allow the U.S. forces to stay.

And the revelations made by Chelsea Manning made it impossible for the Iraqi government to do that without some kind of accountability for U.S. troops.

And that’s what really forced U.S. troops out of the country. And for someone like me who saw… I went [to Iraq] in the first year of the war. And then spent year after year seeing my friends go, seeing them come home traumatize, and more traumatized. I’ve seen the body count continue to grow.

To see [Chelsea Manning], someone who played such a major role in stopping the bloodshed, to see her in jail now is one of the many, many great injustices of that whole catastrophe.

BB: Let’s just remind the audience because it’s been a few years since her trial. Manning is a trans woman who in a statement the day after sentencing –where she was sentenced to 35 years in prison– said she had felt female since childhood, wanted to be known as Chelsea and desired to begin hormone replacement therapy.

And since then, Mike Prysner, the military, even though she’s already been sentenced to 35 years in prison for having told the truth about Iraq, they won’t stop punishing her.

MP: Right. You know, the great irony here is that [now at] the end of Obama’s administration, and all of these “great reforms” he’s making  in his last hundred days, one of those things was lifting the ban on trans people serving openly in the military. And it was greeted with this great fanfare, of this “New Day” in the U.S. Military, where now we’re accepting of LGBTQ people, and now you can [serve in the military] openly.

Well, apparently that’s not the case for Chelsea Manning! I mean it’s just ridiculous that so much was made of that when this trans soldier, who is in jail, is not being afforded all of these rights that were “advertised” as this great new page for the U.S. Military.

Also, [the U.S. Military] diagnosed her with a “medical disorder?” I disagree with calling something like this a “medical disorder,” but if we call it that –as the Army is saying– “denial of treatment” for a medical disorder is is torture. So that’s what they’re doing.

So this is just another in these attempts to continue to punish her because they want to set this example. They know that there are so many other people like Chelsea Manning in the military today, like myself when I was in the Military, and thousands of people in the Army and Marines, Navy and Air Force who became anti-war activists. There’s so many people who see the injustices that are going on, [they] know that the American people do not know about them, and [they] this desire for the world to know and to stop what was happening.

And [the Military] wants to use Chelsea to set an example to tell every single rank-and-file soldier that if they even think of exposing the truth about what they’re a part of, then they’re going to be given the worst punishment that they can come up with.

BB: That’s Michael Prysner, he is an anti-war/Iraq War veteran. He is the founder of “March Forward!” that has done so much to help soldiers, returning soldiers, Marines and sailors who have PTSD and other problems associated with their tour –or tours– to Iraq and Afghanistan.

We are talking about Chelsea Manning. We are talking about the fact that Chelsea Manning is now on a hunger strike, a hunger strike until death, she says, unless she is treated with dignity and respect.

The material that Chelsea Manning revealed, Mike, one was at the July 12, 2007 Baghdad airstrike. An Apache attack helicopter mercilessly gunning down journalists and civilians. There was the air strikes in Afghanistan. All together, all of those revelations have been put together and are now known as the “Iraq War Logs” or the “Afghan War Diary”.

All of this from Chelsea Manning’s heroic, courageous revelations. Manning was ultimately charged with 22 offenses before being sentenced to 35 years. One of the charges was “aiding the enemy”, so who is the enemy?

I mean, in Iraq, who was the enemy in 2007? Saddam Hussein was gone, the [Iraq]  government was toppled. Saddam Hussein had been targeted and was ultimately executed. Who was the enemy?!?

MP: Right. Well, from the perspective of the U.S. government the enemy was anyone who is opposing U.S. aims in Iraq. Anyone who was opposing the continuation of the U.S. occupation there. And Chelsea Manning’s revelations “aided the enemy” in the sense that [these revelations] aided the anti-war movement, aided the Iraqi people in what they needed to force the United States to leave.

I think the only people that were “hurt” by those revelations were the highest ranking general who wanted to continue to use the war to advance their careers [along with] the politicians who were in bed with lobbyists and getting all sorts of kickbacks, and this entire system that was hoping to reap massive, massive financial rewards off of continuing to occupy the country and reap all of its resources.

BB: Mike, Chelsea Manning has been brought up on charges because she attempted suicide a few months ago. Talk about that, what exactly is she being charged with?

The military also charged her with “Resisting the forced cell remove team, [possessing] prohibited property and [exhibiting] conduct which threatens,” but she was unconscious when the guards entered her cell. Is there any limit to what they’re doing to her?

MP: No. They went through the list of every single Administrative Charge on the books and found every single one they could twist and turn to possibly relate to anything she did.

So, yes, “Resisting the guard,” while being unconscious. This Administrative Charge of “Conduct which Threatens,” I don’t know if she was threatening herself or, by being unconscious, she was threatening the guards. But you can tell that this isn’t just them saying,”these are the rules, and we have to follow the rules.”

[Rather,] they are searching for any little thing they can use to make her life as miserable as possible. And these Administrative Charges are quite, quite serious. They could extend the amount of time she spends in jail, before she would be eligible for parole. But more than that, this could mean that she could serve the rest of her sentence in solitary confinement, according to her attorneys. This is what these charges are saying.

So they’re not [simply] trying to charge her with extra things to keep her in jail longer, but [worse,] do what is recognized around the world as torture.

This punishment for a suicide attempt is right in line with the standard practices in the Army for all soldiers who have attempted suicide or seek help for suicide.

BB: In what way?

MP: In my experience working with active-duty service members who have been trying to receive access to Mental Health Services. So in going to several military bases around the country [and] in interviewing people in the Army and the Marines, Air Force and in the Navy who have dealt with mental health issues, you see across the board the very common experience is receiving some kind of “push back” or punishment if they say that they are suicidal or if they attempt suicide.

Those who say they are suicidal, they’re treated like they’re lying, that they’re “malingering,” that they’re just trying to get out of work and there’s this backlash of ridicule, of public humiliation, of being put on the worst duties.

And those who have attempted suicide, they have dealt with the same thing. There’s even been formal charges for many other soldiers who have attempted suicide, which have resulted in demotions, dishonorable discharges and things like.

So when you really look at how [the U.S. Military] treats –not just Chelsea Manning– but all soldiers who seek help for mental health issues, you can see why the suicide rate is so exorbitantly high.

BB: Yea, the 2013 statistics showed 22 veterans committing suicide every day. One every 65 minutes.

Of course [we’re now in] the 2016 Election Cycle, so the usual demagoguery is on full [public] display. The Democrats and Republicans all [insincerely] “loving the veterans,” hugging them, talking about them in [Congressional] hearings. I mean, it’s kind of pitiful.

But why are 22 veterans committing suicide every day? One every 65 minutes? From your point of view –because you’ve been there– you were in the war, you know what that was. You know how it transformed you. You also have also gone to military bases, you’ve been reaching out to those soldiers and Marines. Talk about why this is such a phenomenon.

MP: Right, and you know that “22 a day”, many of those many of those –most of those– are people who have gotten out of the military. But, “ONE a day” is on the active duty military, people serving in uniform!

It’s a far higher fatality rate than the war in Afghanistan or on many years of the war in Iraq and Afghanistan, when there was dozens of casualties a month, the suicide rate was actually outpacing them.

So, of course, the first sign of that is the experience of being deployed, of being sent to criminal wars –imperialist wars– and all the things that that involves. Mainly, being made to fight someone who isn’t really an enemy and people who are just like you. Your job being to do things to them that of course you’re going to regret.

But really people, for a variety of reasons, deal with mental health issues after being the military even people who haven’t deployed. In fact, a the large number of people who haven’t deployed are part of that a large suicide statistic.

And that’s because everyone thought mental health is such a huge issue in this country, but it’s not something that can’t be treated. And people can be helped, but in the U.S. Military –and even when you get out– but in particular, in the U.S. Military, it’s treated with such disdain. In an effort to deny that people have a problem, versus, helping people who have problems.

A culture of punishing people who seek help, discouraging others from doing the same. I mean, it’s all on these leaders.

You know, I was at Fort Lewis, and the Colonel who was in charge of the hospital there was ordering doctors not diagnose people with Post-traumatic Stress Disorder [PTSD, but instead], to make other things up like “adjustment disorder,” or pre-existing conditions like “personality disorder” before they joined the military.

And he explicitly said because they didn’t want to be paying out benefits to people. That money wasn’t coming out of that Colonel’s pocket. That money wasn’t coming out of anyone’s pocket. But, the fact that his “career” was based on keeping those numbers low, so then he’d get promoted to General.

So hundreds of soldiers at his base alone, were thrown under the bus, were denied treatment they needed, were denied compensation they needed, just so this high-ranking officer –who was already living a life of luxury– can get a little better “facts” on his promotion paperwork so he can get to an even higher rank. I really think that terrible, terrible leadership is really what’s at the core of this massive suicide rate.

BB: That’s Michael Prysner. [This situation is] disgusting. I really want to thank you, Michael, for bringing that out. For small bureaucratic and self-promoting purposes, officers actually turning away from the soldiers who they say they’re leading, turning away and allowing them to hurt themselves or commit suicide.

In our last minute,Michael Prysner, in Britain there was the Chilcot Report, the Iraq inquiry report, that came out not so long ago that determined that the British government under Tony Blair was in fact culpable and responsible for the war of aggression in Iraq.

There’s nothing like that in the United States. Is it possible still at this date in 2016, that other forces –grassroots forces, soldiers, veterans groups–  can mount an effort to hold those accountable –unlike Chelsea Manning who told the truth about the War– hold those who committed these crimes accountable? In the last minute.

MP: Yes, I’m quite optimistic, I think it’s possible. I think the culprits, [George W.] Bush and his cohorts feel that they are in the clear, and they’ve gotten away scot-free, and they are living their lives in retirement as if they’re never going to have to answer to these crimes.

But I think the gravity of them and the massive amount of human suffering it caused both for Iraqis and for so many millions of families here in the United States, that you can’t run away from justice forever. And that the magnitude of those crimes are so great, but of course the People can organize and force those people to be brought to justice, but it’s not going to happen on its own. It has to come from people forcing it happen.

BB: Okay we’re out of time. That’s Michael Prysner, he is the founder of “March Forward! He’s an anti-war, Iraq war veteran. We’ve been talking about Chelsea Manning. We will be back tomorrow, be sure to go to our Facebook page, “Loud and Clear with Brian Becker” for daily updates.

If you enjoy the show and want your friends to hear it, let us know by liking the page on Facebook. Remember telling the truth is important, but to make a difference, it has to be loud and clear. We are out of here.

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