I have been on the verge of death so many times that I can only conclude that something must keeping me here for a reason. The list of close encounters includes but is not limited to malaria, bombings, poisoning, motorcycle mishaps in the jungle, marauding militia, artillery barrages, sectarian violence, death threats, lightning jolts and skin of the teeth evacuations.
What compelled me to put myself in such harm’s way? It started with how my mom instilled this idea of service in me at a very early age – of being useful and helpful to others. Added to that was my adventurous side of being attracted to different languages and cultures. The other element was definitely an addiction to adrenalin, my drug of choice during that time of my life. You see this addiction in a lot of aid workers and military people. It’s that very intense visceral experience when you’re close to death that you feel the most alive. There was something of a thrill in seeking those extremes that I (and almost everyone I know who shares this experience) wasn’t fully conscious of feeling at the time. It was only when I discovered meditation years later that I suddenly had zero desire to go into situations like that any more. Maybe age and wisdom also had something to do with it.
My time in Rwanda perhaps gives the best example of the crazy life I lived as an aid worker. Returning to the US after serving in the Peace Corps in Zaire (which is another harrowing story by itself), I got a graduate degree in international development and was working for the University of San Francisco’s center for AIDS Prevention Studies. There I was interviewed for a job that had two major requirements: to speak French and be willing to go to a war zone. Pick me!
It was 1993, and Rwanda was so dangerous that the US government was evacuating people. The civil war between the Hutu and Tutsi populations was heating up that first year I was there. The director of the project was pregnant and back in California, so she pretty much put me in charge. It was at the time when people were still trying to learn what HIV/AIDS was, how it was transmitted and the natural progression of the virus. At that time there were no medications available, and in the capital Kigali where I was, about one-third of the population was HIV positive. So there were some crazy scenarios going on related to that.
They would come with bags, and we had security guards checking them for bombs. Bombing and poisoning were the big things in Rwanda at that time. You could buy hand grenades in the market. Easy access. At any time I was waiting to get blown up or poisoned. Our head cook where we were living was known to come from a family of well-known poisoners. When we found out he was stealing and had to let him go, we had to scrub down every pot and pan and throw out all the food to make sure we weren’t going to get poisoned by him. If we went to a bar, the waiter would always open the bottles at our table, and then you’d have to keep your hand over the bottle to make sure no one could slip poison in. I would go out with friends, and we’d always go to the place they had recently blown up because we figured if they just bombed this place yesterday, it should be safe to go to for a couple of weeks. It was a sick and twisted way of going about things, but the situation was deteriorating quickly as the war got closer to Kigali.
The closest I got to getting blown up was during one of my daily stops at the post office. I was driving away from picking up the mail for about 30 seconds when I heard a big explosion. It was the mailbox next to mine that had a bomb in it that blew up. Added to this was my accidental exposure to contaminated blood. And the time when my boss (who had returned from California) had thought I was an intruder and almost shot me. Then I was with a friend eating chocolate mousse in a little French café when machine gunfire went off a block away. I didn’t bat an eyelash and kept eating my mousse. Then it dawned on me—this is probably not OK for me to be OK with it.
There were IEDs on the roads hidden under palm fronds. I was getting used to seeing dead bodies in the street. People were being beaten to death before my eyes. I knew the genocide was going to happen, just waiting for something to trigger it, perhaps just a month or two away. I decided for a whole number of reasons that it was time for me to get out of there. I knew if I bore witness to the genocide, it would crush me as a human. I just wouldn’t be able to recover and be effective in the world anymore. Most of my 50 staff members were killed in the genocide. My young 26-year-old mind did not know how to begin to even process this. It wasn’t until 11 years later in a silent meditation retreat that it all came out, and I cried for 3 days. It was intense grief and a release of the survivor’s guilt I had endured.
Returning to the States after another dangerous stint in Bosnia and Croatia, I was in Miami as the director of a resettlement agency working with refugees and victims of human trafficking. Here I was, dealing with a crazy dysfunctional office, trying to help trafficked people when their traffickers were still at large, many in the Russian and Chinese mafias. It was a hairy situation—and both I and my husband (who I had married in Bosnia) had PTSD. We were a mess. I wasn’t sleeping. I had digestive problems. I had an out of control temper. Hypervigilance. My staff walked on eggshells around me.
A colleague of mine working at another agency was using some modalities to help bring relief to people who had been exposed to trauma. She told me about the Art of Living Course by Sri Sri Ravi Shankar. I took the course and it was life-altering for me. The first time I did the SKY Breathing Meditation, I felt this boiling rage coming out of me. Oh my god, what is this? The release of all the pent up anger and rage was appropriate but unexpected. The next day, I was completely blissed out. So that started the journey. As I was healing and began feeling fulfilled inside, that fullness wants to express itself out into the world in terms of service and helping others. How I was presenting myself to others changed dramatically, from being this hot-headed stressed-out person to being compassionate, a good listener and present for people in a way I could never be before.
I also slowly became more dissatisfied with my work. My clients were people at the depths of despair, suicidality, depression and anxiety. They were struggling so much, these ghosts of people, just existing and living for their kids, hoping their children will have it better than they did. I was helping them get jobs and apartments. So what, I thought, what’s the point of life if I can’t help them in some way to move past that?
I saw how the larger institutions were not focused on the inner well being of these individuals, just the practical, the most basic needs. That’s what shifted me out of relief work completely. I took a leave of absence for a while, went to India and came back committed to work full time with trauma-affected populations get their lives back— to thrive as individuals with hope in their eyes and hope for the future.
If you would have told me several years back that I’d be working with veterans and loving it, I would have told you that you were nuts. I was always working on the other side of the conflict. War made me crazy because I saw children without parents, and all the suffering and displacement.
I was on a silent meditation retreat that was being taught by a friend, John Osborne, the director at the time of an organization called Project Welcome Home Troops. He showed a video of some veterans who had gone through the program. One was a Vietnam vet describing experiences that were exactly the same that I had – stepping over dead bodies and feeling total numbness. I immediately identified with them, and a month later I was working with the veterans program. At the same time, I was also managing a program in Iraq that taught the same techniques to Iraqi war survivors. It struck me that these are all suffering human hearts, no matter what side of the conflict they’re on, no matter what they saw, did or endured. I made the full shift to really seeing the need. I felt very much at home with the veterans. They’re incredible people with such heart.
At first, when I speak in front of a new group, I will introduce myself and tell them a little bit of my background but not too much. But as it goes on, I let myself become more vulnerable with them. I’ll tell them that I’m sitting here in this seat alive because of men and women like you because I had my butt pulled out of so many hairy situations by military people of many different uniforms. I talk about my experience with PTSD and how I was not dealing with life when I came back. They soon see me as a little beacon of hope, this centered, happy person. “Wow, if she could move through that, then maybe that happiness is available for me too.” They understand that I’ve never walked in the boots of a military member but had close enough exposure to death and devastation to speak with clarity. They’ve joked with me, “You’re a veteran of a different kind – but you were crazy. You were there without a weapon.”
With this work, everything I went through overseas all makes sense. I feel like my whole life has prepared me for the work I’m doing now. What practicing and later teaching meditation has done for me and what I hope it is doing for others is to give a new perspective on life. Today, it is remarkable how I can have the most horrendous day and go home and sleep like a baby because the stuff doesn’t stick to me anymore.
Leslye Moore serves as national director of Project Welcome Home Troops, which is a GIFT National Partner. Leslye also serves on the GIFT Veterans Initiative’s Executive Committee as a Mastermind.
To reach out to Leslye and find out more, visit www.PWHT.org.