The Welsh mother of WikiLeaks whistle-blower Bradley Manning last night told him to ‘never give up hope’ as he faced up to spending the rest of his life in prison.
Susan Manning says she knows she may never see him again following his conviction last week on spying charges at a US Army court martial hearing.
But in her first interview since Bradley, 25, was arrested for exposing US military secrets more than three years ago, Mrs Manning adds: ‘Never give up hope, son. I know I may never see you again but I know you will be free one day. I pray it is soon. I love you, Bradley and I always will.’
She told how she will never forget a visit he made to her in 2006 when she was being treated for a major stroke in her hometown of Haverfordwest, Pembrokeshire.
He was wearing a Superman T-shirt and Mrs Manning, 59, says: ‘Please remember, Bradley, you will always be my Superman.’
It was also during that visit in 2006 that he told her for the first time that he was gay.
Mrs Manning, stricken by health problems that have left her unable to visit her son in the US since February 2011, could not bring herself to turn on her television or radio to hear a US Army judge convict Bradley. Instead she lay curled up in a ball in her bedroom.
She had closed her curtains and was lying in the dark with a mobile phone at her side so her sister Sharon Staples, 50, who lives four miles from her, could keep in touch.
A Mail on Sunday reporter was at the home of Mrs Staples – who helped care for Bradley when he was a child – when the verdict arrived.
Back in May 2010, when it emerged that a skinny, bespectacled American soldier called Bradley Manning had been arrested for the largest leak of classified secrets in US military history, his family were the only people not shocked by the news.
It was revealed that he had forwarded to WikiLeaks more than 250,000 diplomatic cables, 500,000 Army battlefield logs and videos of US forces in Iraq and Afghanistan making disparaging remarks about the men they had just killed.
But his family in Wales had witnessed his obsession with computers from an early age – and noted his growing rage against perceived injustices.
Mrs Staples, the aunt who helped raise Bradley after his parents’ marriage collapsed, says: ‘If anyone was going to get themselves arrested for leaking hundreds of thousands of secret documents and end up in jail for it, it was going to be our Bradley.
‘He just seemed to have a burning sense of wanting to right any injustice from such a young age.
‘He’d had a very tough childhood in many ways and he’d had to grow up too quickly. His childhood was cut short by all the unhappiness he experienced as a boy.’
Susan met Bradley’s American father, Brian, in Haverfordwest in her early 20s. He was stationed at the nearby Cawdor Barracks, where he served for five years as an intelligence analyst with the US Navy.
They were married within a year and, when Brian was posted to California a couple of years later, Susan and their daughter Casey, two, joined him. Nine years later, they had moved to Oklahoma, and Bradley was born.
By now Brian was working as an IT executive for car rental agency Hertz and was often away on month-long business trips. Bradley initially enjoyed a happy, carefree childhood in Oklahoma but when he was 12 his parents’ marriage foundered.
After the split, Brian met another woman, also called Susan, whom he later married. Worse still for Bradley, he felt the two sons of his father’s new bride, both close in age to himself, were his dad’s new priorities. It left him feeling rejected and abandoned.
Susan returned to Pembrokeshire with Bradley in 2001 and enrolled him at Tasker Milward comprehensive in Haverfordwest. But he soon became a target for bullies.
Mrs Staples says: ‘They’d pelt their house with eggs day and night and his home life was just as tough. Susan wasn’t at all well and Bradley bore the brunt of that at a time when he should have been working hard for his upcoming GCSEs.
‘Bradley felt he had to look after her and went from being a grade A pupil to leaving school without any GCSEs to his name.
‘From the age of 12 or so, Bradley was having to be the man of the house and that placed huge responsibility on his shoulders that I don’t think he was ready for.
‘He was very intense about everything and seemed to have a much stronger sense of injustice, of what is right and wrong, than most people.
‘He was forever talking about the wrongs that he felt were being committed by certain US senators – but of course we’d never heard of any of them so couldn’t contribute to the conversation.
So eventually he’d get bored and go off and sit at one of his computers instead. I sensed that the computer was his escape.’
Bradley flew back to the US when he was 16 after his father persuaded a friend to give him a job with his computer firm. But Bradley’s poor people skills soon let him down.
‘He kept telling his boss how to do his job,’ says Mrs Staples. ‘He’d pull him up all the time for mistakes in the way he was programming his computer. After a few weeks, the boss fired Bradley because he thought he was too big for his boots.’
When Bradley was 18, his father again offered to ‘pull strings’ to land him another job – in the US Army. But Bradley took the initiative and signed himself up while visiting another aunt, his father’s lawyer sister Debbie, in Washington DC.
He remained in regular contact by phone and email with his mother and aunt Sharon in Wales, but they found it difficult to match the ‘scrawny little kid in boxers and a blanket’ to the smart young man now dressed in military uniform.
Mrs Staples says all of his family were ‘very proud’ of him being in the army – but that pride turned to horror in May 2010 when Bradley was arrested.
It was Brian who broke the news to the Welsh side of the family. Mrs Staples, by now running a busy cleaning company employing ten staff, says: ‘I was at work when I got a call from him.
‘His voice was very solemn and he said, “Sharon, Bradley has been arrested. He is in big trouble. Can you let Susan know, please?’’
‘He didn’t tell me any more at the time but told me to watch the TV. I turned it on and there was Bradley’s face staring back.
‘For a second, I thought, what the hell is Bradley doing on the telly? Then I sat down and listened to what he was being accused of.
‘Memories of him at the computer as a boy flooded back. One thought in particular came back to me of the time he’d come back to Haverfordwest to see his mum at Withybush Hospital, after her stroke in 2006.
‘He was wearing his Superman T-shirt and he’d dyed his blonde hair black. I remembered him telling me and my husband, Joe, that he couldn’t walk round town here because he’d be mobbed.
‘At the time I thought, “Get real, mate, you’re not a celebrity.” But he’s certainly fulfilled his dream now, that’s for sure.’
The family’s horror at his arrest in 2010 deepened the following year when they visited him in jail as he awaited his court-martial.
Susan, accompanied by Sharon and her husband and suffering worsening health problems, made her first and only trip to the US to visit Bradley in February 2011 at a US marines’ base at Quantico in Virginia.
She was permitted four one-hour meetings with her son, who was being kept in solitary confinement. Sharon and Joe were not allowed inside.
Sharon says that, after the first visit, Susan fell into her sister’s arms and sobbed: ‘You wouldn’t treat a bloody animal like they’re treating Bradley.
‘He was sitting on the other side of a glass partition and when I walked in I heard the sound of the chains round his hands and feet before I saw him.’
Sharon says: ‘Most of the time, they sat in silence but held each other’s gaze. She didn’t get to hug him, but was able to tell him she loved him.
‘I don’t believe Susan will ever see him again. He’ll be behind bars until he’s an old man, if not for ever, and there’s no way Susan is healthy enough to fly out to America now.
‘It’s going to take a miracle to get him out. And to think people are released from prison after 12 years for murder.’
The following November, Mrs Staples and Joe, a 49-year-old kitchen and bathroom designer, made a second trip to the US to visit Bradley.
By now, he had been transferred to Fort Leavenworth, Kansas – a five-hour each way trip from Oklahoma. ‘It was freezing cold and dead deer lined the road as we neared the prison,’ says Mrs Staples. ‘It was pretty bleak.
‘When we arrived, even though we’d been approved for the visit, the guards seemed hell-bent on delaying us so we’d have as little time with Bradley as possible.
‘In the end, we got 40 minutes with him, but it was worth it.
‘We walked in and Bradley was already in this huge room, dressed in orange overalls like they wear at Guantanamo Bay.
‘There were guards and guns everywhere and microphones directly above where we were supposed to sit – but there was no glass partition and he didn’t have his chains on, so we could hug each other.
‘I threw my arms round him and gave him the biggest hug and a kiss. “That’s from your mum,’’ I said. ‘She says to tell you she loves you.
‘He said he was fed up with having to eat chicken all the time because there were no other choices, but he’d been watching plenty of TV. I asked him if he wanted me to send him anything and he said, “Everything I want is in here and here.’’
‘As he said the word “here’’, he pointed to his head, then his heart.
‘His mind certainly seemed organised and strong. I’d always thought of him as a spoilt child but I could see now that he had found a strength I never knew he possessed.’
Mrs Staples has not seen her nephew since that day and although he kept in touch with family by mail for a time, he has not seen, spoken or written to any of his relatives for the past ten months.
‘We’re really worried about why that is,’ she says. ‘Are they preventing him from making contact? We just don’t know.’
Their first glimpse of Bradley since 2011 was this week when he appeared at his court-martial in a small courtroom at Fort Meade, near Baltimore.
Mrs Staples watched on television as the judge acquitted her nephew of the most serious charge of aiding the enemy – but found him guilty of more than 20 crimes.
‘I phoned Susan,’ she says. ‘She was sitting in her bedroom with the curtains closed. I told her to turn the TV on and watch it and she said, “Is it bad news?”
‘‘No,’ I said. ‘I wouldn’t be ringing you to tell you to watch if it was bad news.’ Afterwards, we spoke again on the phone and she said, “Yes, that’s brilliant news.”
‘And it is really because it offers some hope. Like me, Susan knows he’s not coming home any time soon – but at least there’s a chance now that he’ll be released before he dies. There’s something to play for.
‘But I’m not getting carried away – he still faces a maximum of 136 years in prison.’
However, lawyers for the whistleblower are now seeking to reduce his potential sentence by having some of his convictions merged.
The sentencing hearing is scheduled to continue until August 23, but Mrs Staples says she believes the process will last much longer.
‘Bradley’s sister Casey has told me she is one of several witnesses the judge wants to make statements to the court about him – and that is going to take time. It could be months before he is sentenced.
‘I’m just praying for leniency.’
Two children were among the casualties.
Mrs Staples believes the world will one day see Bradley’s actions as heroic.
She said: ‘How many people wish the Nazi death camp guards who looked the other way had done what Bradley did?
‘One day, maybe even America will recognise that he did the right thing. He felt compelled to let the world see what he had seen.’