By Susan Heavey and Ian Simpson
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Bradley Manning, the U.S. soldier sentenced to 35 years in military prison for the biggest breach of classified documents in the nation's history, said on Thursday he is female and wants to live as a woman named Chelsea.
Manning, 25, launched an unprecedented bid to get female hormone treatment in a military prison a day after he was sentenced for leaking documents to the WikiLeaks website.
"As I transition into this next phase of my life, I want everyone to know the real me. I am Chelsea Manning, I am a female," Manning said in the statement read by anchorwoman Savannah Guthrie on NBC News' "Today" show.
During the sentencing phase of Manning's court-martial for leaking more than 700,000 secret documents, defense attorneys pointed out that the soldier suffered from gender identity disorder. A psychologist testified Manning had a difficult time adjusting to the "hypermasculine environment" of a combat zone.
Manning said in the statement that he wished to begin receiving hormone therapy while serving his sentence in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.
A spokeswoman said the Army did not provide hormone therapy or gender-reassignment surgery, but that military inmates have access to mental health professionals, including a psychiatrist, psychologist, social workers and behavioral science specialists.
"Given the way that I feel and have felt since childhood, I want to begin hormone therapy as soon as possible," Manning said in the statement. "I also request that starting today you refer to me by my new name and use the feminine pronoun."
Manning's lawyer David Coombs said on the TV program he expected his client to get a pardon from U.S. President Barack Obama. Manning, who was convicted last month at Fort Meade, Maryland, on 20 charges, including espionage and theft, could be eligible for parole in seven years.
During the trial, Coombs had argued that Manning had been increasingly isolated and under intense stress when he leaked the files, and that his superiors had ignored warning signs.
Coombs said his client was not seeking gender-reassignment surgery, but he would press Fort Leavenworth to provide hormone therapy for Manning.
"I'm hoping that Fort Leavenworth will do the right thing and provide that. If Fort Leavenworth does not, then I'm going to do everything in my power to make sure that they are forced to do so," Coombs said.
'COMFORTABLE IN HER SKIN'
Asked if Manning wanted to be sent to a women's prison, Coombs said no.
"I think the ultimate goal is to be comfortable in her skin and to be the person that she's never had an opportunity to be," he said.
Coombs said he was not worried about Manning's safety in a military prison since inmates there were first-time offenders who wanted to complete their sentences and get out.
Experts generally view military prisons as safer than civilian prisons since the inmates are accustomed to hierarchy and discipline.
Manning had not wanted his sexual identity issues to become public, but they did after his arrest in 2010, Coombs said.
"Now that it is (public), unfortunately you have to deal with it in a public manner," he said.
A psychiatrist, Navy Reserve Captain David Moulton, testified during Manning's trial that the soldier suffered from gender dysphoria, or wanting to be the opposite sex, as well as narcissism and obsessive-compulsive disorder.
Geoffrey Corn, a military law expert at the South Texas College of Law in Houston, called Manning's bid for hormone treatment the first of its kind for the military. Openly gay members were barred from serving until the Pentagon's "don't ask, don't tell" policy was repealed in 2011.
"We don't have any precedent for the application of military medical care for elective gender reassignment therapy," he said.
Corn was skeptical that Manning would get approval for hormone therapy since federal courts have traditionally given the military deference for its life and activities.
"I don't see it happening," he said.
Chase Stangio, staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union's Lesbian Gay Bisexual and Transgender Project, said in a statement that the Army's saying it did not provide hormone therapy raised "serious constitutional issues."
Courts have consistently found that denying medical care for gender dysphoria to prisoners based on blanket exclusions violates the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution, which bars cruel and unusual punishment, Stangio said.
(Reporting by Susan Heavey and Ian Simpson; Editing by Scott Malone, Jeffrey Benkoe and Vicki Allen)