"I wanted to be like my dad and defend my country," Jesse Milbrat tells PEOPLE.

By Susan Keating
Updated May 25, 2015 04:55 PM
Credit: Courtesy Staff Sergeant Michael Flater/Sandy Milbrat

A Roseberg, Oregon, man wanted so badly to follow his father’s bootsteps into the U.S. Army that he lost 180 lbs. to qualify, and soon will travel across the country to attend basic training in Georgia.

“I wanted to be like my dad and defend my country,” Jesse Milbrat, 20, tells PEOPLE. “For me, the path was a little harder than it is for most people, but I made sure I did it.”

Jesse’s dad, Todd Milbrat, earned his coveted Ranger tab and served with the Army in Desert Storm. He also served as a role model for his young son.

“He inspired me,” Jesse says. “I wanted to grow up to be like him.”

More than a year ago, Jesse decided to enact his dream. In his age bracket, at 5’9″, he was allotted no more than 200 lbs. by the Army. He was 380 lbs. At that weight, the service wouldn’t take him.

“I had to do something about that,” Jesse says. “I knew it would be hard. I was in the habit of eating. I always wanted to eat.”

He also had wanted to lose weight for a long time, but had not been motivated to work at it.

“I had to be like my dad. That was my dream. I knew I wouldn’t achieve my dream being heavy,” Jesse says. “I knew I would have to try.”

Following advice from his mother, Trina, Jesse began to cut down on fattening foods, and started to work out. He kept at it for a year.

The effort paid off.

“He came into the recruiting station looking like a fit guy,” says Jesse’s recruiter, Staff Sergeant Geoffrey Errebo, who enlisted Jesse to become a cavalry scout. Errebo was shocked to learn that Jesse recently had weighed nearly 400 lbs.

“Most people who come to us overweight need to lose between 20 to 30 lbs.,” Errebo says. “A lot of them have trouble doing that, and wind up losing their motivation. They fall to the wayside.

“Not Jesse. He had the dedication to stick to his regimen.”

The process is ongoing, Jesse says. “I have to work out all the time. I go to the gym six days a week. I do my cardio. I have to make the effort. It’s worth it, to be like my dad.”

“I’m overwhelmed that he did this, and that he did it to be like me,” says Jesse’s father, Todd, who also lost weight in order to join the Army in 1990. Describing his son as “a former class clown who turned out really well,” Todd says he couldn’t be more proud. “I’m really happy with him.”

So, too, is the Army.

“He has an extreme work ethic,” Errebo says. “The dedication he showed will serve him well.”

Basic training begins June 1. Jesse soon will leave the relatively mild Oregon climate to attend the training at Fort Benning during Georgia’s hottest and most humid season. The incoming private E-2 is not daunted by the prospect.

“I’ve been preparing myself,” Jesse tells PEOPLE. “I’ve been going into a sauna to do abs work and pushups.” He also has been working out inside a steam room. “It’s 180 degrees and humid in there. Fort Benning can’t be any worse than that.”

RELATED VIDEO: Meet Alexis Shapiro, a 12-year-old Suffering from Uncontrollable Weight Gain

Jesse hopes that he will serve as an example to others who struggle to achieve goals despite seemingly heavy odds.

“I understand and I feel for them,” Jesse says. “But if I can do it, you can do it.”