By Staff Sgt. Jim Tortolano
If a picture is worth a thousand words, then perhaps it might take a thousand pictures to tell the story of Staff Sgt. Gene Arias, a renowned photographer whose journeys from the White House to Mt. Everest to Antarctica eventually landed him in the California State Military Reserve.
Currently assigned in public affairs for the Installation Support Command at the Joint Forces Training Base in Los Alamitos, Arias, 65, has traveled the world and seen much of it through the lens of his camera. He’s worked with Hollywood icons and superstar athletes and been a close friend of a presidential family.
Born in Colorado, he started his military career in the U.S. Navy, serving 1969-1972 in Hawaii. That’s where he started as a photographer. Basically self-taught, he’s taken college courses at a variety of colleges and universities, but was too busy with his career to get a degree.
He landed a job with KNBC-TV in Los Angeles as a still photographer, and by 1973 was graduated to the network, shooting publicity photos for everything from sports to soap operas. In that role, he worked with such celebrities as Johnny Carson, Bob Hope, John Wayne, Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra.
“There were all nice people,” said Arias, “but my favorite was Bob Hope for what he did to entertain the troops.”
It was on a publicity shoot when a producer asked Arias if he would take some photographs for a friend who was running for office. That friend turned out to be William Jefferson Clinton.
That began a long relationship with what would become The First Family. When Clinton won the presidency, Arias became the family photographer and had the run of the White House.
“Bill Clinton and Hillary are the best people in the world,” said Arias. “They’re intelligent, polite and cared about people. Not to get too political, but I think he genuinely cared about all Americans.”
Arias came to the CSMR in 2007. He was at Edwards Air Force Base for an air show and spotted a group of men in uniform. “I went over to thank them for their service,” said Arias. It turned out they were recruiters for the CSMR, led by now-Sgt. 1st Class Jerry Schultz.
The pitch almost worked right away. “But I said, ‘let me think about it.’” A short while later, Arias was driving past Los Alamitos and turned off into the JFTB, found an orientation session and signed up.
He is now living in Sherman Oaks with his wife, Susan, and working for his niece at a firm which makes off-shore racing components, Arias devotes a lot of time and effort to the CSMR.
“It’s great,” he said. “I’ve had opportunities I never thought I would have. I never thought I’d be doing air ops, or get a license to drive a Humvee.” He also recently was certified as a security augmentee, qualifying with the M-9 pistol and M-4 rifle, in case additional base security is needed.
He also keeps busy with his hobby of road-biking. He was formerly a long-distance runner, having once run from San Diego to Sonoma. Over a 23-day stretch he visited all the old Spanish missions along the El Camino Real.
“Have to stay in shape to keep up with all those younger guys,” he said.
Although Arias has literally been all around the world, one of his biggest thrills came just a short distance from the main gate at the JFTB. “I was in the Katella Deli, dressed in my ACUs,” he said. “A sweet little girl of no more than 4 or 5 came up to me and tugged on my uniform.
“What is it, sweetheart?” Arias asked.
“I want to thank you for protecting us,” she said.
That’s a mental picture this accomplished photographer will always keep.