"Patriotism is a big thing for his generation," his father Emanuel Skarlatos tells PEOPLE

By Susan Young and Andrea Damewood
Updated August 28, 2015 04:30 PM
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Credit: Aurelien Meunier/Getty

Army National Guard Specialist Aleksander “Alek” Skarlatos is a patriot to his core.

“Patriotism is a big thing for his generation,” his father Emanuel Skarlatos tells PEOPLE. “He thinks the world should be just. He’s for the underdog and the weak.”

When Skarlatos, 22, and pals Spencer Stone, 23, and Anthony Sadler, 23, overpowered Ayoub El Khazzani after he allegedly opened fire on a Paris-bound train, he was even wearing his favorite red, white and blue high-top Nikes that say “MERICA” on them.

They are the same shoes he wore in his town’s Fourth of July parade, where the California native dressed head-to-toe in Old Glory’s colors to celebrate his return from a year-long deployment in Afghanistan with his Roseburg-based National Army unit.

“When he came back, that’s when he and Spencer and Anthony wanted to go on this European trip,” his mom Heidi Hansen tells PEOPLE. “They just wanted to have fun.”

Skarlatos grew up next door to Stone in the quiet Sacramento suburb of Carmichael. The dynamic duo became a trio when Sadler joined them in middle school at the Freedom Christian School in nearby Fair Oaks.

While they maintained their friendship through early adulthood, the trio parted ways in high school. Stone and Skarlatos attended Del Campo High School until his junior year when Skarlatos opted to move to Roseburg, Oregon, to live with his father and stepmother Karen.

Skarlatos grew up fishing and hunting and told his dad that his knowledge of guns helped thwart the alleged terrorist’s attack on the train.

“They ducked down, and when [El Khazani] was putting his clip together, they realized that was the moment,” Emanuel Skarlatos says. “He’s really familiar with guns and knew the sound of the magazine coming out.”

Those who know Skarlatos aren’t surprised that he helped lead the charge on the train that day.

“He knows everything about every gun ever made,” says friend and Costco coworker Kyle Newell, adding that he’s “the nicest person you’ll ever meet. I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who didn’t like him.”

Skarlatos’ dad says his real goal is to become a police officer, and he is attending classes at a local community college to reach his dream.

The Roseburg home also features some of Skarlatos’ artwork, including an abstract piece he painted with bold red strokes that look like chili peppers. Art is a passion he shares with his father, who does oil paintings. He’s also a dedicated military history buff.

Friends and family say he’s also an adrenaline junkie who loves kayaking and played on his high school lacrosse team.

Skarlatos’ mentor, retired police officer Stan Kohlmeyer, 67, who was wounded three times during his military service as a sniper, says he wasn’t surprised to hear of Skarlatos’ heroic act.

“After you’ve been in combat for a few years, you recognize people who have the ability to withstand the rigors of combat and do well. Alex is one of them,” he says.

And when he heard of his prot g ‘s feat aboard the train, he says he quickly texted him: “You’re my hero.”

For more on the trio’s remarkable heroics and inspiring bond, pick up the new issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday