A Sportsman at War

For the third time in five years, Mike Perra has put aside chasing fish for hunting bombs in Iraq. Like thousands of other soldiers, he’s got a love of the outdoors that helps him cope with his mission

C.J. Chivers
Mike Perra.F&S

Sometime near midnight, in blackness near the Duxbury Pier Light, Mike Perra steers his 23-foot boat through shifting drapes of light rain and fog. The surface of Cape Cod Bay slaps the boat's aluminum-plate hull. A single fish, a bluefish weighing about 5 pounds, rests in an icebox on the forward deck.

It is a weeknight in late September. The hour is late and the bay is empty of boats. But Perra is not done. He is still looking for fish, hoping to find a feeding school of large, fall-run striped bass, the sort of fish that provide meat and memories to fishermen during the many months in New England when the stripers are not around. The air is cool enough to pull fog from the sea, but it is not quite cold. Yet the night feels of a season nearing its end. Perra, who seems irretrievably at home on this boat, is packing out.

At this moment and in this place, he is Capt. Mike Perra, a fisherman who is a descendant of fishermen reaching back to the whalers of Nantucket. Twenty miles from the dock, between boulder piles and shoal, in darkness and wrapped in fog, he peers at the radar screen. His title--captain--is both permanent and transient. He is, after all, so committed to his sport and to life on the brine that he holds a master's license allowing him to command vessels up to 50 tons. But on land his title shifts and is replaced by rank. On land, he is Senior Master Sgt. Michael Perra, the EOD superintendent of a specialized unit that destroys insurgent bombs. He's also a husband and father soon to return for a third time to Iraq.

Much about him suggests a methodical mind. Here is a man who tends to details, as evidenced by his lean frame, unwrinkled plaid shirt, and trimmed hair that is inclining toward gray. Even on a day away from his military base he has a close shave. Now he studies the monochrome screen, where a small blip glows. His boat is approaching something in the darkness beyond his nose.

"You see a buoy out there?" he says softly, toward the broad back of his friend Scott Allan, who stands at the bow, watching the sea. Scott is large, John Wayne large, with a mechanic's sure and heavy hands. His right hand bears the tattoo of a huge hook embedded in flesh; his left, a compass rose. A third tattoo, etched onto his neck, takes the shape of gills. They make a curious pair: the lifetime explosives specialist, buttoned down but game, and the bear-size, tattooed mechanic who could shove his way into a Harley Davidson ad. But the sea is a binding force. Together these men chase fish through the waters that wrap around Cape Cod--bass and blues, cod and haddock, tuna and thresher sharks--with an intensity that has filled this boat with meat. They have hundreds of hours together on the waves and can exude, in an instant, the collective mischief of men who regard each other as brothers. They are serious now. The chart plotter shows their treacherous nighttime route, with depths fluctuating along the channel: 46, 50, 71, 1, 4, 2. Look away, miss a buoy, the boat is stuck.

A can buoy appears ghostlike off the port side. "There it is, Mike," Scott says. "You're clear."

Minutes later, Mike pushes the throttle forward. The boat jumps on plane, trailing a phosphorescent wake. He is running for the Cape Cod Canal. There, in the inky depths and unrelenting current, he plans to work live eels off the bottom, hoping to tempt striped bass from their ambush sites, enjoying a night of simple pleasures before he flies overseas to a land of ambushes of another sort.

EOD: to anyone who has been in Iraq in recent years, these three letters carry weight, instantly identifying those associated with them as people you want on your side. It's shorthand for explosive ordnance disposal, a military community that for years was a largely uncelebrated service within the services, responsible for cleaning up unexploded ordnance and for rushing to the occasional bomb scare. Since the summer of 2003, when makeshift bombs began killing or ruining the lives of tens of thousands of service members and civilians in Iraq, the profession has become a frontline job, a principal means both of keeping roads clear and of developing intelligence about insurgent and terrorist cells. Deployed in teams that leave the bases and roam, EOD units are on constant call in the most dangerous areas of Iraq. In the best cases, bombs are found by other units, and the teams arrive before they explode. In the worst, the teams scour the smoldering ruins and debris, looking for forensic clues. After enlisting in the Air Force in 1982, Perra, now 42, chose the business of trying to outfox explosives for reasons that, years later, are best described as boyish. "I thought it looked cool," he says.

A quarter century on, he finds he is in extraordinary demand. The Pentagon gathers specialists like him from around the country to create temporary units for rotations to Iraq, assembling the scattered parts into single commands. On this night, as Mike fishes, his newest unit, the EOD contingent of the 332nd Expeditionary Civil Engineer Squadron, is scheduled to fly to Iraq in November for a seven-month tour. Perra is in Massachusetts. The unit's officer-in-charge is in Georgia. The 10 three-man teams they will lead together are spread throughout the United States. In a few days, they will all converge for several weeks of final training, and then board a plane for the Middle East.

This night is one of his last chances to fish.

Scott is unhappy about this, out of worries about the dangers his friend will face, and out of selfishness, too. In July 2007, Scott and Mike and another friend had taken this same boat, the Mean Mary, about 15 miles south of Martha's Vineyard, and caught a thresher shark that weighed between 425 and 450 pounds. The fish, with its whiplike tail, was nearly 14 feet long. The preparations for that trip underscored Mike's penchant for detail. Earlier in the summer, he had caught dozens of bluefish, bleeding each one and collecting the blood in jugs, mixed with fish oil and sand. The bluefish fillets were diced and cubed and spiced with menhaden oil and then frozen in 4-gallon plastic buckets. At the sharking grounds, they thawed and ladled this chum, making a trail of bluefish chunks. Now and then they poured the oily blood-and-sand mix over the side. The sand carried the rich smell deep into the sea, to call predators up from the bottom. The big thresher hit a bluefish fillet suspended about 15 feet beneath a floating balloon.

Scott relates the story wistfully. He wishes Mike would not leave again for Iraq. "I have told him that I'd rather he retire," he says, as the Mean Mary races through the dark.

The boat comes down off plane near where the canal dumps into Cape Cod Bay. Mike has brought along pogies for chunking but also has a bucket of live eels. The night has been slow. Before sunset, schools of bluefish had been herding peanut bunker on the surface near the shoreline between here and Plymouth, and the Mean Mary had joined a small group of boats chasing them. But even though the birds were working and the water foamed with swirling schools, the fish were oddly selective. They boated only one. They have yet to see a bass.

Mike takes a rod rigged with a 2-ounce egg sinker, slides a hook through an eel's jaws, and lowers the bait into the current under the boat. His mind is here, and there.

His closest call, he says, was near Abu Ghraib in 2004. He and his partner had been working on a dirt road, and they repeatedly drove over a bomb, known in his trade as an improvised explosive device, or IED. It was well hidden--a 155mm artillery round buried in soft soil--and they did not see it. After they passed over it a third time, an Iraqi teenager pointed it out. In this simple way, Perra was spared by one of the inexplicable and indifferent vagaries of war. Some IEDs are rigged to explode by pressure plates, set off by the weight of a tire or a foot. Others detonate upon the command of a spotter, someone watching from behind a darkened window or in the brush. EOD teams are extensively trained, and now, a few years into the war, they are thoroughly equipped. But training and gear only help so much. Some days, a man's best tool is luck. "Bomber was out to lunch," he says.

He is silent briefly; the attention this war story brings on him doesn't suit him well. Everybody in EOD has their stories--except those who did not live to tell them. "All of the guys I've deployed with so far, they've all had close calls," he says. "If you're out there, you're not doing one IED a day. You're doing three or four or five. And you start talking about sleep deprivation and missing meals and getting beyond tired. A lot can happen to them, and it has." He is fishing as he speaks; his rod bounces as he keeps a feel on the eel. He is a voice in the darkness, explaining the routines. As a man who faces bombs, he practices making each movement precise, drilling himself to stay alert and calm despite the drudgery, exhaustion, and repetition, because, in a way, the rhythms of war can be like the rhythms of the sea, where all is monotonous and easy for hours stretching into days, and then, in a blink, everything turns bad. If you are in the middle of it and luck has blessed you and you are spared in the first instant, your life depends on how well you have prepared the gear and the men you are with, and your wits.

There are differences, of course, between the perils of the sea and the perils of Iraq, among them the fact that in Iraq there are people all around who are trying very hard to kill you.

Mike explains why he is headed back. Of his 26 years in uniform, 12 were reserve time, leaving him short of the necessary 20 years of active duty to retire and receive a pension. But there is more: The men you are with. Those five words contain one of the basic lines of thinking that accompany a soldier's experience of war. It is the ageless measure. One sure way a soldier can take an account of himself lies in how well he looks out for those beside him. Iraq is a mess; no sane mind would have wished that it would turn out how it has. But here is a reason to go back, something to commit to that is both larger and more personal than the reasons the White House and the Pentagon offered when the troops first went in. "My single biggest worry is losing a team, or losing a member of a team," he says. "That's where my mind is. That's what keeps me awake at nights."

This is a sleeplessness many vets know. Mike's wife, Mary, says that when he has come home from other deployments, he has paced about the house in the night, looking out windows as if he is peering beyond the blast walls of a fire base. She hears him padding through their home and sees him silhouetted and quiet, gazing into the yard. "Sleep is one of the things you have given to Iraq," she told him over coffee one morning. "It is gone." There are remedies for this brand of insomnia. Anyone who seriously chases striped bass understands that striped bass, among their many attributes, are perhaps the best diversion for nighttime restlessness that the sporting life has given us. Bass feed best in darkness, especially big bass, which can relieve itches that are otherwise hard to scratch. In the darkness of this night, Mike emanates ease.

The men you are with--he downplays his other worries. What if that 155mm shell had exploded underneath his vehicle? What if, to borrow his own explanation for the life he was allowed to continue to live, that Iraqi bomber had not stepped away for lunch? Things happen quickly in Iraq. Lives change in a snap. Members of EOD teams often videotape their work, for debriefing and coaching later. On occasion these tapes have captured scenes of teams whose missions ended in a flash. One instant there are men. The next, a sickening crack and a roar of flame. All that remains is scattered helmets and boots. The Mean Mary drifts on the tide. Mike says he does not dwell on what could be. "I guess in a twisted sort of way, if you get blown up you don't even feel it. So it doesn't matter very much."

There are no striped bass tonight, out here in the light rain, and so there are few distractions. He is looking for words that explain a form of psychological pragmatism that has adhered to frontline lives for as long as there has been war. It is a timeless armor, an acceptance of mortality, contemplated and compressed, that defends a man against nothing except his own mind. He has found that it fits. "My point is that you're gone," he says. "You're there one minute and you're not the next. You can't think about it too much, because that is what it is."

He fishes another hour. Still there are no bass. Mike turns the boat toward home.

In the morning, Mike rousts himself for work and heads down to a friend's waterfront plot of land to walk his dogs. He lets them out of his truck near a stack of lobster pots, and they burst off into the brush. Mike sits on a weathered dock. Nearby, in the shallows, what seems to be a small school of stripers is thrashing near the reeds, apparently having cornered a pod of bait. Mike looks at the spectacle briefly but pays it little attention. Time is short. Soon he is headed back to a war. He has an unapologetic dismay about how it has been waged. "If we wanted to win, we shouldn't have gone in with 130,000 troops," he says. "We should have had half a million and gotten the job done." But there is a difference, he stresses, between assessing the course of the war honestly and supporting the job that he and his fellow soldiers have been left to do. "I'm for the troops, obviously," he says. Perra, who wears hearing aids, the result of a life around explosives, has the air of a man comfortable with silence, and with understatement. He is quiet for a moment. "Of course I'm for the troops. I'm one of them."

He heads home to drop off the dogs before heading to the base. Mary puts out coffee. She has been giving the house a makeover and has specks of green interior paint on her hands. "That's how I deal with the stress when he is away," she says. "I paint and clean. The house was spotless when he got back last time." She is a retired Air Force noncommissioned officer. Her brown eyes are unwavering and strong. Mike is leaving. She is not enjoying her urge to paint.

"I don't want to be alone again for seven months," she says, "and I have an opinion about the war that I don't want to express." She looks at her husband, who looks back, giving little away. She is clearly his match, facing down the man who faces down bombs. Mike is silent. She stares at him before deciding whether to finish her thought. She continues. "I have a feeling that we're fighting a battle for 1,000 years, and we're losing all these people. I don't want him to go." Mike sips his coffee. Most every family that has sent someone to Iraq has been here.

"This morning I saw his skivvies on the floor," Mary says, "and I just started to cry."

They sit for a while in the kitchen, looking out the window at the autumn foliage. His boat is on a trailer. Dogs roam their yard. Mary fills a coffee cup with words on its side. It reads: HAPPINESS IS IRAQ IN MY REARVIEW MIRROR.

Mike heads out the side door. Work calls, at least for now. He has plans to go fishing next year, after his third tour in Iraq. There is an early run of sharks in the Mud Hole off Rhode Island. Later, there are sharks on Stellwagen Bank. Between now and then the haddock will be thick, and Scott will take the boat out and chase them, to keep the Mean Mary in shape. By the time Perra's seven months of thwarting bombs are over, the sharks and the striped bass will have started swimming back, and the two friends will ride the swells together, chasing schools.

Most military families face moments like this, especially since late in 2002, when the accelerated cycle of deployments began as it became clear that the United States would invade Iraq. Now it is five years later; each week fathers and sons and wives and daughters are headed to Baghdad or Bagram, to Kirkuk or Kandahar. In the banter between Mike and Mary, in the wordplay and knowing glances, the depth of their friendship is evident. Soon it will be Mike's turn once again on the line. And then if luck and skill win out, he will be home again. Mary's coffee cup says something about rearview mirrors; Mike's front license plate reads: EOD. It is time to go. "I'll be home," he says--it feels like a promise--"in time for the fish."