SIMI VALLEY, Calif. — Dignitaries attending the annual Reagan National Defense Forum here opened their daylong discussion of security issues with a tribute to former President George H.W. Bush, who passed away Friday night at the age of 94.

Bush, a naval aviator who earned the Distinguished Flying Cross in World War II, rose through the political ranks in his post-military life to become vice president under Ronald Reagan and president afterwards.

As commander in chief, he oversaw the deployment of U.S. troops to the Middle East in the first Gulf War and was lauded on Saturday for his focus on the military and dedication to the country.

“Everyone in this room knows that President Bush throughout his life chose service to this nation,” said Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo. “And our nation will forever be a better place because of his service.”

Fred Ryan, chairman of the Reagan Foundation, called him “a true gentleman” who showed the “nobility” of public office and military service.

“As president, he built on his legacy, steering America through challenging times at home and abroad,” he said. “Respectful of others, thoroughly devoted to service, and gracious even in defeat, he also solidified his reputation for integrity and decency.”

House Armed Services Committee Chairman Mac Thornberry, R-Texas., opened the day’s events by asking attendees to consider lessons on handling today’s national security challenges facing America today by reflecting on the end of the Cold War during Bush’s term as president.

“Even now I think we underestimate what an incredible challenge it was to manage the collapse of the Soviet Union,” he said.

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis released a statement following Bush’s death Friday noting that the Navy veteran “took his experience in war to build a better world as our commander-in-chief.

“We will miss him, but at the going down of the day, his example will long guide our sailors, soldiers, airmen and Marines for how to live life without regret,” he added.

President Donald Trump on Saturday declared a national day of mourning for former President Bush on Dec. 5 and ordered flags flown at half staff for 30 days in tribute to his life. Bush is expected to lie in state in the Capitol Rotunda in coming days.

Visit Defense News' Reagan National Defense Forum site for full coverage of the event.

Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.

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