(CNN) -- Right now, Bradley Manning is alone.
The 22-year-old U.S. Army private, suspected of involvement in the largest-ever intelligence leak in American history, is in solitary confinement at Quantico, the Marine Corps base in Virginia. He's facing eight counts of violating U.S. Criminal Code for allegedly leaking a secret military video from the Iraq war that made its way to WikiLeaks.org.
If convicted, he could go to prison until he's a very old man.
People who say they know Manning describe him as naturally adept at computers, smart and opinionated, even brash. Friends and acquaintances paint a picture of a person who, from a young age, couldn't help but get involved when he perceived an injustice. It was a tendency that sometimes sparked confrontation with authority figures and those who disagreed with him, they say.
According to friends and his own writings on the internet, Manning is openly gay.
Judging by his Facebook page, the young soldier's politics appear to be left-leaning, and he's an ardent supporter of groups working to achieve full civil rights for gays. Manning listed on his page causes such as "Repeal the Ban - End Don't Ask, Don't Tell" and included links to "No on Prop 8," a California ballot measure that eliminated the right to marry for same-sex couples, Human Rights Campaign and the National Center for Transgender Equality.
It's unclear, however, if those politics may have had any role in what authorities suspect him of doing: leaking military documents; or whether he was angry over the "don't ask, don't tell policy" that allows gays to serve in the armed forces as long as they are not open about their sexuality.
'A sincere boy'
"ive been so isolated so long ... i just wanted to be nice, and live a normal life ... but events kept forcing me to figure out ways to survive ... smart enough to know whats going on, but helpless to do anything ... no-one took any notice of me"
That is an instant message Manning allegedly sent on May 22 to Adrian Lamo, a 29-year-old former hacker from California infamous for breaking into The New York Times secure computer network -- a crime to which he pleaded guilty in 2004. The chats between Lamo, in California, and Manning, in Iraq, stretched over a few days, and Manning initiated them, Lamo said.
Lamo went to the FBI after Manning allegedly confessed online to leaking classified documents. The ex-hacker told CNN he doesn't know why Manning would trust him, a stranger he'd never met.
Lamo confirmed he told Manning the soldier's online conversations could be protected under the California shield law because it could be seen as a conversation with a journalist. Lamo says he does consider himself a journalist and that he made the offer in good faith.
Manning seemed "naive," Lamo said, "easily led," but a "genuine, sincere boy."
"The only thing I know about Bradley Manning, based on his chats, is that he believed he was doing the right thing by releasing that information -- the right thing being, in his mind, to demonstrate that the U.S. had done bad things in war," Lamo said.
Heated arguments, sense of 'justice'
Bradley Manning grew up in Crescent, Oklahoma, a 1.1 square mile town north of Oklahoma City. His father Brian Manning is reportedly a military veteran.
Manning's mother has kept a low profile in recent weeks, but people in Crescent remember her well. "When you saw Bradley, his mother was there. She was involved," said Crescent school administrator Rick McCombs.
"He was very outspoken in class about government issues and religious beliefs and stuff like that," recalled junior high classmate Chera Moore. "Sometimes he would get in heated arguments in class if he didn't agree with certain things."
Manning didn't care for sports; he joined band. He was quick at computers, and got straight A's, until the end of junior high when his grades dropped to B's and C's, McCombs said.
It was 2001, reportedly around the time his parents divorced. Manning's mother took her 13-year-old out of school, and they moved across the Atlantic to Wales.
Manning attended Tasker Milward in the bucolic county of Pembrokeshire, a school where all the kids have to wear forest-green V-neck monogrammed sweat shirts.
At 15, Manning stood out as a novelty for being American, said classmate Tom Dyer, who hung out at Manning's home at least three times. The mother was quiet, he recalled, but Manning was more passionate.
"He was quite energetic, always full of ideas and had a high moral compass. He would always speak up if he thought that something was wrong without actually thinking of the consequences," said Dyer, who still lives in Pembrokeshire. "Bradley had a great sense of justice."
Though Dyer is Facebook friends with Manning, he said they have not spoken in two years. Dyer said he was taken aback to hear Manning had joined the U.S. Army.
"He did not have a build for that, you know what I mean?" Dyer told CNN.
Former Tasker student James Kirkpatrick agreed with Dyer, saying that the Army seemed an odd choice for Manning. Kirkpatrick kept in touch with Manning, talking to the soldier as recently as six months ago, he said.
"He didn't mention anything about what was happening, but at the same time he did seem a bit secretive ... He was being a bit paranoid about what we did speak about on the Net," the ex-classmate said.
Out and down
"my family is non-supportive . . . im losing my job . . . losing my career options . . . i dont have much more except for this laptop, some books, and a hell of a story." -- Washington Post, instant message allegedly from Manning to Lamo.
Manning dropped out of Tasker and moved back to America in 2005. He told Lamo that he was homeless and had drifted around the country until he landed in Potomac, Maryland, where his aunt took him in.
A former soldier said he met Manning during this time, in a nightclub in D.C. and they had a physical relationship. The man, whose identity CNN isn't releasing, said the young soldier seemed "shy, very quiet, introverted."
"Brad was very different from anybody else at the club. He didn't really look like anybody else at the club," the man told CNN. "I mean, he was very slight, physically. He just appeared really out of place and really lonely."
Their relationship evolved into a friendship, and the two frequently talked about each other's dreams and ambitions, their fears, insecurities and frustrations. Manning told him he was made fun of viciously in the military for being gay. Basic training was "difficult ... because of his sexuality," the man said.
"He had given me indication that the same type of thing that he had dealt with before, as far as verbal abuse, you know, emotional abuse, derogatory comments pertaining to his sexuality," the man told CNN.
Manning didn't recognize the treatment as discrimination, the man said.
"When it came to these things, I felt like he was frankly a little bit naive," the man said. "I didn't think he realized what was happening to him. ... I think at first, he felt just terrible that people would say something like that to him, and embarrassed, obviously."
Manning was "probably more angry at the military and the whole way everything [the war strategy] was run and that was probably why I felt like he was disgruntled towards the end," he added.
Apart from discrimination, the man said Manning had a rough go with his family. He had to leave his father's home, for unknown reasons, and became homeless. Manning drove across the country, living out of a beat-up red truck, working odd jobs, the man said.
After a short stint at Maryland's Montgomery College, and a pizza-delivery job for minimum wage, Manning enlisted in October 2007. He went to Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, for basic training the next year.
Things did not go smoothly.
At an Arizona base in 2008 during advance training that would turn Manning into an intelligence analyst, the young soldier was reprimanded, the military said, without elaborating on details. Wired reported that Manning had been caught uploading videos on YouTube in which he talked about classified buildings.
Manning graduated advanced training and was sent to Iraq. He was given top-secret security clearance.
Manning was arrested in June in connection with the release of classified U.S. military combat video, which showed the shooting deaths of Iraqi civilians and two journalists in 2007 by a helicopter gunship. He has invoked the Fifth Amendment and is refusing to answer questions, a Pentagon official said.
A few months before his arrest, Manning was demoted a stripe to private for getting into a fight with another soldier, a military official told CNN. The circumstances of the fight are unclear.
Until last week, the military had been holding Manning in a Kuwait jail for allegedly leaking the helicopter video. When WikiLeaks published its Afghanistan war documents in late July and Manning became the prime suspect in those leaks, people across the world -- many linked only online -- weighed in. Some called him a traitor. Others banded together to support him.
The Army is considering whether Manning should face the military equivalent of a trial over the charges. He has not yet entered a plea, since there has not been a decision about whether he should face trial, Army Maj. Bryan Woods told CNN. Military lawyers for Manning referred CNN questions about him to Woods.
"If he feels like no one out there cares, he's wrong," said Jeff Paterson, an ex-Marine who last week started bradleymanning.org. The online support network has raised more than $30,000, mostly in $30 chunks. Paterson said he's working with Manning's aunt, who did not respond to CNN's efforts to reach her.
WikiLeaks has said it will contribute to Manning's defense, though it hasn't acknowledged that the soldier was ever their source.
CNN's Larry Shaughnessy in Oklahoma and Atika Shubert and Andrew Carey in Wales contributed to this report, as well as CNN's Chris Lawrence, Barbara Starr, Laurie Ure, Amy Roberts and Taryn Fixel.