After more than 30 years helping heal the sick in the Air Force and VA, Sherman Free was ready for retirement in 2019.
But COVID hit and he couldn’t stay retired too long.
“For me, the pandemic was a call to duty,” Free said. “When the VA reached out to see if I would be interested in returning, I raised my hand immediately. As a Veteran and a nurse, this is where I belong right now. These patients are my brothers and sisters.”
Free has 34 years of nursing experience. He served as a flight trauma nurse in the Air Force, flying on 31 mission-critical flights in Afghanistan before joining the Air Force Reserve. He retired from that position as a lieutenant colonel in 2017.
He also had a full career at the Houston VA Medical Center, starting in the early 2000s and retiring right before the pandemic hit.
He is one of five retiree nurses who suited up for the COVID-19 battle in the halls of the Houston VA Medical Center.
The five work in various administrative areas of the medical center, providing invaluable service to Veterans.
Lottie Lockett, who retired after 40 years, returned to the Houston VA in April 2020 and has been assisting with COVID-19 screening procedures at the entrances and coordinating the float pool.
“It has been incredibly rewarding coming back and seeing the Veterans I cared for, for so many years,” she said. “Even though we are all wearing masks, I’ve had several Veterans I cared for over the years recognize my voice and welcome me back with open arms.”
Kelly Irving, Associate Director for Patient Care Services and Chief Nurse at the Houston VA, says being able to call upon experienced nurses like Free and Lockett during the pandemic has been a huge asset to the hospital. She is not surprised that these former VA nurses stepped up quickly to come back and care for patients.
“As a nurse, caring for others is our job and that caring doesn’t end when our shift ends or even when we retire,” Irving said. “Our VA nurses feel a unique connection and commitment our Veterans. It’s truly a joy to see.”
Free and Lockett said their families and friends were initially concerned about them returning to work during such challenging times. But both say they feel honored to care for Veterans and are proud of VA’s efforts during the pandemic.
“VA is moving at warp speed these days,” Lockett said. “I’m so impressed with all the changes and improvements made here since I retired in 2013. It warms my heart to see VA step up like this to care for Veterans during COVID.”
For Free, the benefit of returning to work after retiring from both the military and the VA, is two-fold. He is able to put his skills to work to fight the pandemic, but is also able to reconnect with many of his fellow Veterans and coworkers. He often finds himself going down to the main lobby of the medical center after hours to assist Veterans in getting where they need to go.
“It’s all about the Veteran here at the Houston VA,” he said. “The Veterans deserve the best and I’m honored to do my part to give it to them.”