The rolling green valleys that cover West Wales bear little relation to the violent chaos in wartime Baghdad, but this innocent setting played a key role in the US military’s darkest scandal. The picturesque seaside town of Haverfordwest played host to Bradley Manning’s teenage years, and those that knew him saw the seeds of rebellion that would explode into the Wikileaks affair and publication of 250,000 classified files.
“He was a proud American but it didn’t surprise me what they say he did,” said John Broughton as we drink tea on his balcony, overlooking the glittering bay. The former deputy head teacher at Tasker Milward School mentored the young Manning in regular meetings, and remembers him best for asking too many questions.
“Coming from small-town America it gave him more freedom”, said Broughton. ‘We don’t salute a flag, it’s not regimented in that way. I think (Wales) broke down a few discipline boundaries.”
Manning arrived in Wales aged 14 after his parents divorced, living with his Welsh mother and her family. The new environment coincided with character changes, becoming open about his homosexuality and embracing the study of computers.
“He left Wales determined to live his life as an out and proud gay man”, said Tim Price, director of The Radicalisation of Bradley Manning, a play created from first-hand accounts, and performed at Tasker Milward. “Unfortunately the U.S. Army still operated Don't Ask Don't Tell when he joined.”
The school’s computer programme was expanded at the time of Manning’s arrival, and it quickly became a passion. “The kids were always testing ways to get round the firewall”, recalls Broughton.
Manning created Angeldyne, a localized social network that amazed teachers. Pages from it reveal Manning writing about Dr. David Kelly, the British government weapons expert who became a whistleblower criticizing the Iraq War, and later committed suicide.
“He wanted to stand up for people who could not stand up for themselves”, a teacher of Manning’s, who chose to speak anonymously, told Metro. “He would not accept things that were not right. He looked forward to going back to the USA and making a difference.”
His friends all describe him as a loner, an "outcast" according to classmate Rowan John. “No one else would talk about current affairs”, the teacher recalled.
But when the allegations were made public in 2010, Haverfordwest took a stand for its adopted son, holding solidarity events and raising legal fees. Initially the ‘Pembrokeshire friends of Bradley Manning’ (PFBM) worked closely with his family but the stress has told on mother Susan, who suffered a stroke and rarely appears in public. “They care about him but don’t want to speak any more”, said PFBM leader Vicky Moller.
The quiet streets still hum with memory, and the local people speak fondly of him. There is even a tradition that fits the crimes Manning is accused of – just a few miles away in neighbouring village Clynderwen village, a boy of 19 broke into the computer of Microsoft owner Bill Gates.
Q+A with classmate and London-based musician Rowan John
Q: How did you get to know each other?
A: He arrived in second grade and at that time I was obsessed with Americans so I invited him over. He was teased and bullied, never connected with anyone and people made up stories about him, I didn't want him to feel left out.
Q: Did he have bad social skills?
A: He wasn't the brightest in conversation, great with computers but would always stay inside at lunch and after school, just working all the time. He would come to some parties but get angry at the teasing, he was a firecracker and would stand up for himself.
Q: When did you last talk?
A: After A-levels, just randomly on the Internet. I was shocked to hear he was gay, people thought he was interested in their girlfriends. I'm so proud of him now and what he has done.