PLEASANT HILL -- Miles away from the machine gun fire and flying shrapnel in Afghanistan, Ryan Poulter is staring down at his latest challenge -- an essay on "Moby-Dick."
After serving three stints in Iraq and Afghanistan, including earning a Purple Heart and Army Commendation Medal for carrying a fellow soldier to safety, the 29-year-old Pleasant Hill native is preparing for the next chapter of his life.
Poulter, a Diablo Valley College student, will be attending Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn., next fall after receiving a scholarship from the Posse Foundation. He is one of only 20 veterans to receive the academic award, and he's the lone Northern California recipient.
Combined with the GI Bill, the scholarship will cover his full tuition while at the school.
Poulter said the news is finally starting to sink in. He even had to check the phone number and receive physical confirmation that Wesleyan had chosen him.
"It's gotten a lot more real," Poulter said. "This is like huge. I'm not filthy rich and didn't have amazing grades. I probably would have never found myself in an institution like this."
The Posse's veterans initiative, which started in 2012, is aimed at increasing the college attendance and graduation rates of veterans at select universities. Recipients must show the determination and ability to excel at the college level, officials said. The initiative is supported in part through $2.3 million in sponsorships.
The Posse model helps top colleges enroll public high school graduates who might have been overlooked by traditional admissions processes, by placing them in teams, said Rassan Salandy, the organization's vice president of external affairs.
"What's so perfect is that they are used to being put in teams based on their military experience. Supporting each other, and having your partner's back, is a natural," Salandy said.
Half of the recipients will join Poulter at Wesleyan, and the rest will head to Vassar College, in Poughkeepsie, N.Y.
"It's an opportunity where I'm not a young guy, and I'll be bringing a lot of worldly experience there and share advice," Poulter said.
Even with a GI Bill, most veterans returning home just "get out and go look for work," Poulter said.
Poulter always wanted to follow in his Navy SEAL father's footsteps and join the military, to the point where that dream outweighed academics.
Poulter's eight years in the Army included 39 months in the Middle East, including two stints in Afghanistan.
During one of those 12-month deployments in Afghanistan's mountainous Kunar Province, Poulter's company helped a local village establish a new army base that served as a barrier between their community and Taliban fighters.
Poulter recalls a seemingly endless two-week battle in October 2011 when Taliban insurgents attempted to enter the village, raining machine gun fire from atop the mountains. There was trouble getting supplies, and food consisted of Pop-Tarts and fruit packets, Poulter said.
Insurgents "really zeroed in on our position" on Oct. 13, Poulter said. He was knocked out by a mortar blast but regained consciousness and hoisted a fallen soldier over his shoulder and carried him to safety.
Years earlier, the lifelong Pleasant Hill resident found out halfway through his junior year at College Park High School that he had mononucleosis.
Poulter earned a high school equivalency degree after losing six months of class time because of the illness.
After returning home from Afghanistan last January and getting antsy, Poulter entered a "Warrior-Scholar" immersion program over the summer at Yale University at the recommendation of someone in his unit.
Someone at that program referred Poulter and two others to the Posse program.
Poulter says he's found it fairly easy to adjust back to civilian life, unlike many veterans who have suffered from battlefield flashbacks.
"I've been really fortunate. It wasn't as bad as I had heard or seen it described it to be," Poulter said.
He benefits from having his mother less than a mile away, his wife, Erika, friends nearby, and support from the Veterans Affairs facility in Martinez.
"I have a pretty good support network," he said.
Poulter earned all A's and B's at DVC this semester, which included courses in computer science, math and English.
"He always comes to class really prepared and motivated and approaches every assignment with a lot of excitement," said Jill Buettner-Ouellette, Poulter's English literature and composition professor.
She said that when he found out the class would be reading some selections from "Moby-Dick," he went out and read extra.
The class has an essay due Thursday. Poulter said he will be writing an argument supporting Captain Ahab, the antagonist in the book.
"I'm going to crush it," he said, cracking a large smile.
After Poulter graduates with a degree in computer science, he hopes to become a U.S. marshal or FBI agent.
"If they think I have too many bumps and scrapes already for that, I'd like to be a computer programmer," he said. "Either would be a good fit."
Contact Paul Burgarino at 925-779-7164. Follow him at Twitter.com/paulburgarino.