SPRINGDALE -- Robert Sanchez's boyhood dream was to be a soldier, not a police officer, but after 35 years with the Springdale Police Department, he has no regrets about the path he followed.
"I'd always wanted to be a soldier, even when I was a little boy," Sanchez said in an interview.
Sanchez, 58, was born in Albuquerque, N.M., in 1965 and grew up in Springdale from the time his family moved to the area in 1971. He said he's always considered Springdale his home.
"I went to first grade in Westwood Elementary," he said. "When I was in the Army I lived in Fayetteville, N.C., but I was happy to come home, to come back to Springdale."
In 1983, Sanchez realized his first dream by joining the Army and becoming a member of the 82nd Airborne Division. He was still pursuing a military career when he got "talked into" trying law enforcement.
"After three years in the Army I decided to get out, get a college degree, and go back as an officer," Sanchez said. "My roommate at the time, Richard Farris, kept encouraging me to become a police officer, he kept telling me 'It would really fit your personality.' So I decided to give it a try."
"Giving it a try" started Sanchez on a 35-year career that ended with a Nov. 18 ceremony marking his retirement.
Sanchez joined the department in 1988 as a dispatcher, according to information from the department's Sgt. Matt Ray, and quickly moved over to the patrol division.
Sanchez said law enforcement met his expectations and also offered him new opportunities. One of those opened up when he became acquainted with Officer Mike Schriver and his police dog Aldo.
"After watching Mike and Aldo, I really wanted to become a K-9 officer," Sanchez said.
According to information from Ray, Sanchez was partnered with a new police dog, Pele, in 1992 and worked with the dog for nine years. When Pele retired from service, he was given to Sanchez to care for.
Working with Pele provided one of the most memorable moments of his career, Sanchez said.
"One of the things I'm most proud of is an incident when we rescued an elderly gentleman who had gotten lost," he said. "It was a cold, wintry night when I got a call that the man had walked away from his home and couldn't be found. We ran a track for maybe a half-mile or three-quarters of a mile through the dark woods and found him stuck in a briar patch."
Sanchez was promoted to sergeant in 1997 and assigned to the patrol division, according to Ray. Two years later, he was one of the founding members of the department's Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) team. In 2012 Sanchez was named SWAT team commander and worked with the Fayetteville Police Department to form a regional team. In more than 20 years with the SWAT team, Sanchez led or participated in more than 300 successful missions, according to Ray.
Sanchez was also a training officer for the department, Ray said, and in 2019 he became a drone pilot and has trained other officers to use drones in police work.
Ray said he became acquainted with Sanchez when he first joined the department. Sanchez's knowledge and experience will be missed, he said.
"He was my first sergeant as a patrolman," Ray said. "I learned a lot from him. His retiring is a major loss for the department. It already feels a lot different with him not being in the hallway every day."
Police Chief Frank Gamble said Sanchez was already with the department when he joined 25 years ago and he has known him in many different capacities.
"He was a sergeant when I started here in 1998," Gamble said. "I worked under him and I was his supervisor over the years. He was always calm and level-headed. I've never seen him lose his temper. That's not to say he never got angry like we all do, but he kept it under control and didn't show it. He was always a great example to everybody he met. He always did the right thing."
Sanchez said his retirement from law enforcement doesn't mark the end of his working life. He began training "civilian" dogs in 1997 and will continue to operate the Alpha School of K-9 Obedience in Springdale.
"We focus on animals that may have some problems with obedience," he said. "We offer basic and advanced obedience training and we also have a therapy dog program. We've got 5 acres on the west side of town and I'm going to focus on that."
Sanchez said the men and women he worked with over his 35 years with the department provided him the support that made the experience more than just a job.
"It's been an amazing experience," he said. "To be honest, I wouldn't do anything differently if I could."