Whiston has volunteered with the Warrior’s Canvas for two years. She helps to organize and execute fundraisers and other special events, and also manages the Facebook page.
David Shields, retired Air Force sergeant, is one of the men who opened the gallery.
“[Maria] was the principal organizer of The Warrior’s Canvas Women’s Group, which meets regularly to complete projects and enjoy camaraderie,” Shields said. “She is a great asset to the work of The Warrior’s Canvas and Veterans Art Center and an integral part of our community.”
Whiston grew up in Wichita Falls, Texas, the youngest of three daughters. Her father was a born-and-raised Texan, while her mother was a Mexican immigrant. Whiston received a traditional schooling and after completing a few college courses, she decided to join the military in order to travel.
“I wanted to see the rest of the world before I got stuck,” Whiston said. “Stuck in the sense of either by marriage or as it happens, having a relationship or having kids. I wasn’t ready for that yet, so I joined the military.”
Upon entry into the military, Whiston was tested and given a job as a cook, where she was shocked by the reality of the trade.
“They were not little pots that were in my mom’s kitchen… They were huge! They were like ‘Private, put that over here,’ and I’m like, ‘What? Are you crazy?’”
Soon after beginning her military cooking career, Whiston decided to retest for a better job. She was offered several new career paths, and chose 97 Bravo—a small task force stationed at Camp Bedrock, Bosnia-Herzegovina, during the time of the Bosnian genocide.
“It is never, ever okay for anyone — from the level of a student who witnesses bullying to a country who witnesses genocide — it is never okay.”
– Maria Whiston
“We were the four that went out on daily convoys, conducting liaisons, meeting with WOS and doing different things like that.”
WOS, Women of Srebrenica, is a nonprofit group who seeks to counsel and assist the women whose lives were affected by the mass genocide that struck the town of Srebrenica in 1995. More than 8,000 Bosnians were slaughtered by Serbian forces, making it the largest mass murder since the Holocaust.
According to an article on the Bosnian genocide by the staff of history.com, by summer of 1995 Bosnia controled the towns of Srebrenica, Zepa and Gorazde, which had been declared “safe havens” two years earlier by the United Nations.
Bosnian Serbs took over Srebrenica and the town of Zepa. The citizens were divided into groups—the women and girls were loaded onto buses and sent to Bosnian-held territory or rape camps. Men and boys were killed onsite or transported to mass killing spots.
In August 1995 the Serbs declined a United Nations ultimatum, so the North Atlantic Treaty Organization joined with the Bosnian and Croatian armies for three weeks and bombed Serb positions.
Finally, following a peace talk sponsored by the U.S. in Ohio, an official division was placed between a Croat-Bosniak federation and a Serb republic.
Among the 20,000 other U.N. soldiers deployed to Bosnia during this time, Whiston worked alongside a nonprofit organization in Srebrenica that was dedicated to helping the Bosnian women who had lost their husbands and sons at the hands of the Serbs.
She worked very closely with the women in Srebrenica during her time in the Army and still thinks about those she helped.
“It is never, ever okay for anyone — from the level of a student who witnesses bullying to a country who witnesses genocide — it is never okay,” Whiston said.
“I’ve gone through a lot, I’ve lived through a lot, I’ve seen a lot, and I’ve grown a lot, and today I am not that same person. However, I carry with me elements of it and some things I’ll never forget.”
As in every war, there are diversified opinions on whether or not U.S. involvement in foreign affairs is necessary. Whiston is certain about her opinion.
“I think they did the best they could at the time, and I think saving a life always, always is important,” Whiston said. “So, if that’s what it took to save lives, then I would say yes. I think that every life is just as treasurable and as big as the next one, no matter who it is, what they’re wearing, or what their status is.”
Women in Srebrenica are still searching for the bodies of their beloved husbands and sons, longing only for closure and a proper burial, according to Whiston.
“These people were killed for absolutely no reason, other than their names and who they were,” Whiston said. “And that wasn’t okay.”
Whiston was medically discharged from the U.S. Army in 2001. She and her family currently live in Jonesborough.
Although she leads a fairly normal life, Whiston walks with a cane that she tries not to rely on. In fact, rarely ever does the word “no” appear in her vocabulary. Her time is filled with her husband, her children, and her volunteer work.
Whiston tries to keep a positive attitude for herself, her family, and her fellow veterans that she supports through her work at the art gallery.
“I’ve gone through a lot, I’ve lived through a lot, I’ve seen a lot, and I’ve grown a lot, and today I am not that same person,” Whiston said. “However, I carry with me elements of it and some things I’ll never forget.”
Maria Whiston at the Warrior's Canvas, where she and others assist fellow veterans in creating, displaying and selling their art. Photos by Carson Arnold.