CRESCENT, Okla. — Hours after Army Private Bradley Manning was sentenced to 35 years in prison for leaking classified documents, about a dozen supporters gathering in the town where he once lived insisted he is a "whistleblower," not a criminal.
They stood vigil in front of the town hall in Crescent, a tight-knight community of 1,400 people about 35 miles north of Oklahoma City.
"We believe the sentencing is cruel and unusual punishment," said Amanda Armstrong, who traveled from her home in Stillwater, Okla. "Bradley Manning is a whistleblower who disclosed information that was very important for the public to know what the government was doing. He should not be in jail. I think he should be pardoned."
Manning was convicted in July of stealing 750,000 pages of classified documents and videos and disseminating them to WikiLeaks, the online anti-secrecy group. A military judge sentenced him to 35 years in prison, reduced his rank from private first class to private, required him to forfeit pay and benefits, and ordered his dishonorable discharge.
Less than a day later, Manning announced he wants to live as a woman.
"I am Chelsea Manning. I am female," Manning wrote in a statement read on NBC's "Today" show Thursday. "Given the way that I feel, and have felt since childhood, I want to begin hormone therapy as soon as possible. I hope that you will support me in this transition."
The Army responded in a statement that Manning will have access to doctors and mental health professionals in prison at Fort Leavenworth, but the military will not provide hormone therapy or gender reassignment surgery.
Manning's gender was an issue in his court martial, where his defense argued the Army ignored evidence of his struggles with gender identity disorder.
But on Wednesday night -- before Manning made public his gender change -- his supporters were more concerned about his identity as a soldier acting in good conscience.
"I want people to understand that Bradley Manning is not a traitor," said Rena Guay, executive director of the Oklahoma Center of Conscience of Oklahoma City, which is a member of the Bradley Manning Support Network. The group has helped pay for Manning's legal expenses, she said, and it will work on his legal appeal.
"He showed a lot of backbone in what he did," said Guay. "It was an incredibly brave thing for him to do."
Manning will be eligible for parole in about 10 years. His attorneys are working on a pardon application to President Barack Obama.
Details for this story were provided by The Edmond (Okla.) Sun and NBC News.