A little more than a year ago, California Army National Guard Col. Nick Ducich served as the commander of a NATO Peacekeeping Task Force in Eastern Kosovo when a spring snowstorm blanketed his post.
Now he’s based just six miles from the sunny Seal Beach Pier.
As the new commander of the Joint Forces Training Base Los Alamitos, Ducich acts as a landlord for the military units and federal and state agencies located at the 1,300-acre base.
Orange County commuters might be familiar with the base because of the Black Hawk helicopters that regularly fly over the interchange of the 405 and 22 freeways. The California Air National Guard has 20 UH-60M helicopters and the U.S. Army Reserve has 15 UH-60L helicopters based at the Los Alamitos Army Airfield.
Ducich is expected to continue helping the base prepare for wildfires and other disasters as well as any potential foreign conflicts.
As Orange County’s only remaining military airport, the Los Alamitos Army Airfield is strategically significant for the West Coast because it can accommodate every aircraft in the U.S. fleet. A 247-foot C-5 Galaxy military transport, for example, made a rare overnight visit to Los Al in July.
“It’s one of the few places that you have that long of a runway, and that’s why in case there is a large disaster in the greater Los Angeles-Orange County area, this is going to be your primary hub,” Ducich said.
The location near the county line also makes the base an ideal staging area for responding to natural and man-made disasters.
California National Guard soldiers responded to the Los Angeles riots in 1992. Black Hawk helicopters deployed from Los Alamitos dropped water on the Thomas Fire in Santa Barbara and Ventura counties in 2017. And the base prepared pallets of food, water, blankets and cots during the recent Southern California wildfires.
Like many career soldiers, Ducich comes from a military family. His father served in the Marines and his uncle died in Vietnam. In 1988, Ducich enlisted in the Army Reserve through ROTC while studying materials engineering at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo.
In February 2005, Ducich served as a battalion operations officer in Baghdad with the 1st Battalion, 184th Infantry Regiment, which was under near-constant attack from insurgents.
Ducich assumed command of the 79th Infantry Brigade Combat Team in June 2015, making him the leader of more than 3,800 California soldiers.
In 2015, he also traveled with a National Guard team to Ukraine to help train and mentor forces there.
Last year, Ducich made international headlines as the first Serbian American to lead American troops in the small Balkan country, which has a complicated ethnic and political relationship with neighboring Serbia.
Ducich’s grandparents emigrated from Bosnia and Herzegovina. He grew up attending a Serbian Orthodox church in Alhambra.
“I would pick a different church or monastery every Sunday to go to, and I would stay afterward and talk to the people and get a sense of what the true issues were,” he said. “For the most part it was about survival.”
As chief of the NATO peacekeeping force in Eastern Kosovo, Ducich assisted with the development of local security and police forces, as well as civilian institutions.
A large number of ethnic Serbs live in Kosovo’s northern cities, leaving the country divided over whether it should join NATO.
“It’s a wicked complex problem and there are no easy solutions,” Ducich said.
Ducich rotated home late last year and was appointed in May to the dual role as the head of Los Alamitos and assistant division commander for its 40th Infantry Division.
In the short period of time that he has been in town, Ducich has recognized and started addressing a large number of infrastructure issues, said Dean Grose, a Los Alamitos City Council member who chairs the base’s military affairs committee.
Notably, Ducich made it a priority to replace aging lights on the airfield’s runway, Grose said, and helped secure funding for a new base fire engine equipped to extinguish aircraft fires.
“He stepped up and made that happen,” Grosse said.
Ducich said he’s also working on getting funding to repair the runway, modernize an old aircraft hanger, improve aircraft hanger security and construct a permanent building for the state’s Mediterranean fruit fly prevention team, which operates twin-engine planes at the airfield.
“When you’re looking at anything that’s approaching the 50-year life cycle, you can either do a little bit of maintenance and improve the surface or you can do the full bore ‘I want to replace this runway,’” Ducich said. “The bucket is only so deep and everyone is trying to fight for that critical resource.”
He also has plans to improve aging buildings and populate them with government employees from the Army Corps of Engineers and other agencies, as well as improve maintenance bays for military transport vehicles.
“These are welcome because a lot of the structures haven’t been attended to,” Grose said. “I’m relatively certain that Col. Ducich will be the guiding light in that particular process as long as they leave him here.”