Chelsea Manning, the US soldier responsible for a massive leak of classified material, was set to walk out of prison today after seven years to find a country that has grown more accepting of her transgender identity but less enamoured with the cause that led to her incarceration.
In 2010, the former military intelligence analyst, then known as Private First Class Bradley Manning, provided thousands of secret documents to WikiLeaks, an international organisation that publishes such information from anonymous sources.
It was the most sweeping breach of its kind in US history.
After Manning's 2013 conviction, the soldier was sentenced to 35 years in prison. But former President Barack Obama, during his final days in office, commuted the remaining 28 years on the sentence.
After being convicted of espionage, Manning said she identified as a woman and began her transition, even as the US Army kept her in the men's prison, requiring a male haircut. Her lawyer said she twice tried to commit suicide and faced long stretches of solitary confinement and denial of healthcare.
While Manning was in prison, the Defence Department last year lifted a long-standing ban against transgender men and women serving openly in the military. This freed 7000 active and reserve transgender members to tell the truth about their gender identity, according to Pentagon estimates.
Although transgender people still complain of discrimination in education, employment and medical care, awareness of the issue has exploded since Manning went to jail.
Manning, 29, is likely to become a transgender advocate after her release from the US Disciplinary Barracks at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, said Chase Strangio, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union who has represented Manning.
"She is someone who is driven by a sense of justice. And I don't see her fading into a private life," Strangio said, listing transgender youth, prisoners and women of colour as potential causes.
Still, Manning faces a difficult transition to freedom, Strangio said. Social conservatives reject expansion of transgender rights, and many national security experts revile her for providing more than 700,000 documents, videos, diplomatic cables and battlefield accounts to WikiLeaks while serving as an intelligence analyst in Baghdad.
Manning said she disclosed classified information "out of a love for my country" to expose truths about the civil war in Iraq.
At the same time, the reputation of WikiLeaks has declined as part of the ebb and flow of public perceptions of national security, said Robert Deitz, who previously served as general counsel at the National Security Agency, senior councillor to the director of the CIA, and other national security positions. "Public perception of intel changes according to what's going on in the world," Deitz said, adding that he felt Manning should have served the full 35 years. "She did enormous damage to the intelligence community."