The secretary of the U.S. Army said the nation is in an era of persistent combat fighting the global war on terrorism and that the country should feel humbled by the sacrifices of an all-volunteer military force.

Preston "Pete" Geren, who was confirmed Secretary of the Army this summer, said the surge in Iraq has dramatically improved conditions, but he said media coverage of the progress is scant and it's impossible to predict when combat forces will exit the country.

Geren said the war in Iraq that began in March 2003 has become America's third longest war, eclipsed only by the Revolutionary and Vietnam wars. It's also the only extended conflict in the nation's history with an all-volunteer force, Geren said.

The civilian leader of the Army paid a visit to Robstown last week during a tribute to the military at the Richard M. Borchard Regional Fairgrounds that was sponsored by the Corpus Christi Chamber of Commerce.

The large crowd of more than 800 people included the families of local servicemen that have been killed in recent years in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as military personnel ranging from the enlisted ranks through generals and admirals.

The photos of 21 South Texas servicemen and women who have been killed in Iraq and Afghanistan were shown during the Salute to the Military tribute, and the families of the deceased troops present at the Dec. 5 gathering were asked to stand and be recognized.

"Our grateful nation owes you a debt that we can never repay," Geren said. "The debt of the many to the few grows daily."

Geren said the global war on terrorism being waged principally in Iraq and Afghanistan is worth the high price. But he said the national media seldom reports the courageous acts of troops.

"You would not know it by the media coverage they received," Geren said, adding the media instead has provided an "inaccurate and jaded image of men and women in uniform."

Geren told the story of Army Sgt. 1st Class Paul Ray Smith, who was killed in Iraq April 4, 2003, when his task force was attacked by 100-plus enemy fighters.

Geren said Smith fought off the enemy using hand grenades, anti-tank weapons and eventually a 50-caliber machinegun atop a vehicle, until he was finally felled by a mortal wound while operating the machinegun and providing covering fire for his fellow soldiers.

Geren said Smith's selflessness saved the lives of scores of American soldiers, while as many as 50 enemy fighters were killed.

Smith was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor April 4, 2005.

"It is a story largely ignored by our media," Geren said.

The Army secretary said the Smith story drew 99 mentions in American media. By contrast, he said the alleged Koran abuse at Guantanimo Bay drew 4,000 media mentions and the story of the court martial of Army Reservist Spc. Lynndie England in connection to prisoner abuses at Abu Ghraib prison had 5,000 mentions.

Geren said 500,000 soldiers have been deployed in recent years to Iraq and Afghanistan, with 220,000 soldiers being re-deployed to the war zones. Geren said the deployments have been hard on the families on the soldiers, especially since about half the soldiers are married and Army families have about 700,000 children.

"For them, six years of war is uncharted territory," he said. "This is the longest war we've ever fought with an all-volunteer force."

Geren said although the holiday season is especially hard on the military families, "military families take care of military families."

"We are in an era of persistent combat," Geren said. "Our military families get no medals, but they are heroes nonetheless."

Geren spoke with the newspaper after his address. He said that smaller newspapers tend to better report on local military units and the coverage is more favorable.

"You do see news outlets where there's a stronger connection to the local military. You see a connection there that tells the full story," said Geren, who is a former Congressman from Texas, serving in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1989 through 1997. "There's just something about the national media coverage that doesn't pay attention to that level."

Asked if he thought the media's war coverage was skewed by anti-war sentiment, Geren said: "I do not know."

Asked when combat forces would leave Iraq, Geren said it was impossible to predict.

"That will be driven by circumstances on the ground," he said. "We've made great progress over the last year. The surge has allowed us to make great progress. You can't look over the horizon. It's impossible to tell."

Geren was introduced by U.S. Rep. Solomon Ortiz, D-Corpus Christi.

Ortiz said Geren was a leader, innovator and humble colleague when the two served together in Congress.

"As secretary, he is the same leader, same innovator and a down-to-earth person," Ortiz said. "And he's making very great strides. He's there to improve the quality of life of the men and women serving in the United States Army. He suffers the pain and anguish of the men and women."

Ortiz said Americans sometimes take the military for granted and fail to recognize the suffering of military personnel.

"It's very difficult, especially this time of season…and they're away from home so that you and I can enjoy our freedom," Ortiz said.

Ortiz is the third ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee and he chairs the committee's subcommittee on Military Readiness and Military Construction.

Geren said Ortiz has dedicated himself to a lifetime of public service from serving in the Army during World Ward II, to becoming a constable, a county commissioner, a sheriff and member of Congress in 1983, where Ortiz is now the dean of the Texas delegation.

Ortiz said his Congressional district may be in South Texas, but he said he represents American military across the globe.

"My constituency is all over the world because I represent every single serviceperson that has served," Ortiz said.

Terry Carter, a retired Army colonel and president and chief executive officer of the Corpus Christi Chamber of Commerce, served as the master of ceremonies and introduced Ortiz.

Carter said it was the military that ensured Americans could "live in a free country, and go to bed at night without fear."

"Since the birth of our nation, Texans have answered the call of duty," Carter said. "They have carried our flags into battle relentlessly."

Carter said 317 Texans, including 21 from the Coastal Bend, have died in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"Their loss and the loss suffered by their families are our loss as well," Carter said. "Thank you for your family's sacrifice for our nation's freedom."

The evening's events included a song by Tejano-music Grammy winner Freddie Martinez Sr., who wrote and sang "My Brother Bobby" for the occasion.