Washington (CNN) -- Despite laws barring women on the front lines, the top U.S. military officer said Thursday that many women have faced the same dangers as men on the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan.
"I know what the law says, and I know what it requires. But I'd be hard pressed to say that any woman who serves in Afghanistan today, or who served in Iraq over the last few years, did so without facing the risks of their male counterparts," said Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in a speech to the U.S. Institute of Peace.
"In a war where there is no longer a clear delineation between the front lines ... and the sidelines ... where the war can grab you anywhere, this will be the first generation of veterans where large segments of women returning will have been exposed to some form of combat," Mullen said.
He noted more than 200,000 women have served in the U.S. military in Iraq and Afghanistan. Their service had given the American forces a "competitive advantage" in new contact and outreach to local women in the war zones, he said.
"Time and time again, they show us that courage and leadership recognize no gender," Mullen said.
"They're coming home to Dover, too," he said, referring to the Delaware base where the bodies of those killed in the wars are brought. "And just as their male counterparts have, they are returning with wounds visible and invisible, with consequences for our health care system, our national employment rate, and even homelessness."