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The military has lots of stuff, and this port can move it; a $15 million deal brings them together

Portsmouth Marine Terminal, seen in 2019, with the Norfolk skyline behind it.

JONATHON GRUENKE/DAILY PRESS

By GORDON RAGO | The Virginian-Pilot | Published: March 17, 2021

NORFOLK, Va. (Tribune News Service) — Hampton Roads is a military town. Hampton Roads is a port town. Why not combine the two?

A $15 million, five-year contract signed last month ties the industries together: The military has lots of stuff; the port can help move it.

And it appears the deal would breathe new life into the Portsmouth Marine Terminal, a cargo facility located on the Elizabeth River which was closed to container traffic in April due to near double-digit drops in cargo related to the coronavirus pandemic. The port has kept the terminal intact for other uses like staging equipment for an upcoming offshore wind project.

The U.S. Transportation Command awarded the contract to Virginia International Terminals, which runs the port’s container facilities, on Feb. 19. The port will provide stevedoring, or dockworkers, as well as “related terminal services.”

The cargo will run the gamut of military equipment, everything from tanks and helicopters to food, said Fred Rice, a spokesman for the Military Surface Deployment and Distribution Command, which falls under the U.S. Transportation Command. Equipment will be moved through when needed rather than a prescribed number of times each month.

It’s not uncommon for the military to link up with commercial partners. The port has been moving stuff for the military since our country’s infancy, according to a 2011 Hampton Roads Transportation Planning Organization report. Norfolk International Terminals — now one of the port’s gateways for containerized goods — served as an Army Quartermaster Depot in World War I. But such deals have been rarer for the Port of Virginia in recent years.

Today, Virginia is one of 23 “strategic seaports,’' 17 of which are commercial. The rest are military. Each helps move equipment around the globe in the event of a war, response to a humanitarian crisis or a “contingency,” military lingo for action short of war. There’s been a list of such seaports for more than 50 years.

The Port of Virginia worked with the Surface Deployment and Distribution Command to move cargo following the Sept. 11 attacks, but that changed over the past decade or so as some of the action shifted away, possibly to other ports, said Joe Harris, a port spokesman.

But a couple years ago, the port started making efforts to diversify cargo and saw the military as a great partner.

“We’re no strangers to each other,” Harris said.

The military will rely on Portsmouth Marine Terminal, while other facilities, including Norfolk International Terminals and Newport News Marine Terminal, were listed “in case there were to be an issue preventing the use of Portsmouth,” according to documents provided by the military.

While container traffic shifted away from Portsmouth in April, the port is finding other uses for the 287-acre facility. Other than working with the military, the port has also agreed to lease 40 acres to a European-based company to stage equipment for an offshore wind project.

Two units will be responsible for coordinating the military movements, including one locally: the 597th Transportation Brigade out of Joint Base Langley-Eustis. The port will handle cargo and equipment across the Department of Defense, from the Army, Marine Corps and Navy.

That unit helped train around 50 dockworkers a couple summers ago at Portsmouth Marine Terminal. Soldiers taught the stevedores how to handle equipment like giant military vehicles by crane, unloading the equipment from a ship tied up along the facility’s berth.

Greg Ferst, who was the brigade’s safety and health manager, said the training helped build partnerships between the civilian dockworkers and soldiers, according to a post online from Joint Base Langley-Eustis.

The port and military hope those relationships will build over the life of the contract.

“We are all one big force,” Ferst said.

gordon.rago@pilotonline.com

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