Americans love the troops -- until they're killed in action, at which point all too many people forget the soldiers and their families, according to retired Adm. Mike Mullen, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

"Our culture is a culture of 'if you're here, we love you, and if you are not, please carry on [with] whatever it is,'" Mullen said at a breakfast hosted by Concerned Veterans for America and The Weekly Standard. "And the best and worst example of that were Gold Star families."

A Gold Star pin "is distributed to members of the immediate family of a fallen servicemember by the Department of Defense," as the National Gold Star Family Registry explains.

"It's like an outward expression of a burden carried deep inside," Gold Star widow Jane Horton, whose question about the cultural division between the military and civilian communities prompted Mullen's remarks, told USA Today in January 2012, four months after her husband died in Afghanistan.

"I've never been asked about it," she noted, because most Americans don't understand the symbol.

Mullen and his wife met regularly with Gold Star families, only to find that "the support for them was stunningly thin because the main line of connection was the military member who [had] passed away."

"When you get to these wars, I worry that America has paid us very well, the compensation's good, [so the culture says] 'please go off and fight our dirty little wars and let us get on with our lives,'" he said. "We need to figure a way to get America to buy into those, into them."

The problem is worse in the Northeast than other regions. "The people in the Northeast don't know us anymore, for example," Mullen said, given that the Base Realignment and Closure process has led to the closure of so many military installations in the region.

He proposed some sort of universal national service program (although not a draft), perhaps two years of service for all people between the age of 18 and 24, to bridge the gap between the military and the civilian communities.

"The military becoming more and more isolated from the American people is a disaster for America," Mullen said.