National Guard Wedding
5:00 am
Fri August 9, 2013

Meet The Military Couple Who Fit A Little Wedding Into The Great Flood Of 1993

Twenty years ago, the flood of 1993 changed lives up and down the Mississippi and Missouri rivers.

Fifty-five thousand homes and 33,000 businesses were destroyed. Fifty people were killed. Damages totaled in the billions.

But in the midst of the devastation, there were moments of joy, too.

For two former soldiers in the Missouri National Guard, the flood of 1993 marked the start of their lives, together.

This is their story

St. Louis Public Radio's Rachel Lippmann tells the story of a moment of joy for two Missouri National Guard soldiers on flood duty in 1993.

Robert and Christine Schuler Hurst had been engaged for only a few months in the summer of 1993, but they were already thinking hard about their wedding.

"We were living together, but we were both on the fence about morally is this right or is this wrong," Christine explained as she sat across from Robert in the kitchen of the family's home in south St. Louis County. "I mean, financially, it met a need, but it went against everything we had been taught. We had talked about eloping."

But the Missouri National Guard had other ideas. In late July, it activated the couple, both with the 35th Engineering Brigade, for two weeks of flood duty. Robert hefted sandbags throughout east-central Missouri, including at the First Baptist Church of Festus and Crystal City, where Christine guarded the makeshift levees.  

A wall of sandbags shields the First Baptist Church Festus/Crystal City from the Mississippi River in the summer of 1993.
Credit (Archives of the First Baptist Church Festus/Crystal City)

The flood was the story of the summer, so at some point, Christine ended up telling a reporter about their abrupt change in plans.

"And she went to somebody in the PR department of the Guard and said 'hey, you’ve got this soldier,' and somebody from the guard approached us on a Thursday or a Friday, I don’t remember, and said, we’ll put the ceremony together if this is what you guys want," she said.

An "I do" amidst the sandbags

And that’s how the couple found themselves standing in their fatigues in the Sunday School room of First Baptist on August 9, 1993, saying their vows to Army chaplain Jerry Miller. The sanctuary, which had suffered heavy flood damage, was unusable.

Miller, an Episcopal priest calls it the most unusual wedding he's ever done

"Most of the weddings I preside over are in a church, in a liturgical space," Miller said "This was done with all kinds of cameras around and things like that. So it was sort of a challenge for me to keep my head straight about all of that."

Miller met only briefly with the couple before he officiated their wedding. But he says he never doubted the sincerity of the vows.

"On the one hand, I thought it was sort of romantic getting married in the middle of a state crisis and being on duty like that," he said.  "And at first when I heard about, I thought, why can’t they wait? And after I visited with them, I realized that’s probably what they needed to do."

Robert Hurst isn’t exactly sure what made him go along with the idea.

"I knew we were going to get married anyway, and we were already living together, so we figured why not?" he said.

And even the media spotlight wasn't that bad. 

Robert and Christine Hurst give interviews after their wedding on August 9, 1993. The couple had been called up for flood duty with the Missouri National Guard.
Credit (Courtesy of Robert and Christine Hurst)

"After the ceremony was over, they took us outside, and we rode in a Humvee over to a pile of sandbags, and then they did a little interview of us in front of the sandbags," he said. "It was kind of neat to have your five minutes of fame or whatever."   

There's a couple of things the Hursts want to clear up about their wedding. Yes, they did meet through the National Guard - but well before being stationed in Festus for flood duty. No, Christine was not pregnant - their son Aaron came along 10 months later.

Regardless, not everyone was nonchalant about the circumstances. Robert was raised Catholic, and the compressed time frame left no room for the church’s premarital traditions, much to his father’s dismay.

"I don't think he was thrilled, but he showed up," Robert says.

And Christine? Well, she has two younger brothers.

"I think my mom was a little heartbroken, ‘cause she obviously, since I'm the only girl, wanted the pretty wedding, the big to-do," she said.

"Silly. Fun. Upbeat."

But in the end, both families were happy for the couple. And Christine says the wedding they had represented who they were. 

Friends and family honor the couple with an arch of crossed swords, the traditional end to a military wedding.
Credit (Courtesy of Robert and Christine Hurst)

"As we walked out of the church, a very good friend of ours and I think it was [Robert's] brother stood and we walked under crossed swords," a traditional end to a military wedding, she said. "And I had no idea, but the friend of ours took the sword and whacked me on the backside. And the Salvation Army had given us a wedding cake, and we didn’t have good clothes on so who really cared if we got frosting all over the place?"

Memories

The Hursts had no chance to arrange for a photographer, so there aren’t many pictures of those little moments. Christine says the few that do exist are sitting in a pile waiting to be put into scrapbooks. But she doesn't need them.

"I have something to remember. I have a great family," she said. "I mean, I have some of the pictures, and I’d be heartbroken if I did lose them, but I don’t need those things to know what my wedding meant to me, and what my family means to me."

Robert says the slap-dash nature of their wedding convinced many the marriage was destined for failure. And Christine says the family has been through “hell and back” – including Robert's two overseas deployments with the Guard and their son Aaron's death in 2012.

But it survived – like the church where they married 20 years ago in the midst of a record-setting flood.

Check out our archives for more on the Flood of 1993 and the aftermath 10 years later.

Follow Rachel Lippmann on Twitter: @rlippmann