Saturday, October 31, 2020
Tom Muench will take his final walk out the door as an official Tomah VA employee on Wednesday after 50 plus years as a social worker. He is pictured by Building 404. His office was inside. Herald photos Bob Kliebenstein.

Muench retiring after 50 plus years at Tomah VA

After 50 plus years a guy collects a lot of stuff in an office.

It's taken a few days for Tom Muench to clean out his office. But then Muench had over 50 years to accumulate stuff in his first-floor office in Building 404 of the Tomah Veterans Affairs Medical Center.

Muench, 84, is retiring after 52 years as a social worker at the Tomah VA, as far as he knows the most senior social worker in years of service in the entire VA system. Nationwide, not just VISN 12, (the Great Lakes Health Care system). 

Last week all that was left in his office was a box full of miscellaneous items and a few odds and ends. The walls were bare, but if only those walls could share the stories he heard from veterans from the Vietnam War era to current active duty military.

"There has never been a day when I didn't want to come to work," Muench said. "It will be hard to walk away. I will keep a lot of phone numbers of soldiers to call."

Muench's path to Tomah started in Antigo. He enlisted in the United States Air Force where he served four years. Muench wanted to be a tail gunner in the Korean War. But remember the military in that generation. Wants were often secondary. He wound up being trained as a dental technician.

As fate would have it, the Korean War ended before he saw duty overseas. His path then pointed to the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point where Muench majored in human services. He left college with degrees in sociology and English. Muench was editor of the UWSP newspaper (skills that would prove valuable later in life).

Muench earned a master’s in social work at UW-Madison, his college education paid by the GI bill. He was the first child in his family to attend college. Muench would initially put that education working for Portage County as a social worker before finding his way to the Tomah VA in the same role.

The Tomah VA's mission changed significantly in his tenure. Muench recalls the Tomah VA with 1,100 beds and its focus on inpatient medical care for soldiers. In 1986 that mission started to evolve primarily to outpatient services.

At the culmination of his career Muench maintained a caseload of 108 patients, he said. Of those 92 diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

PTSD grew in prominence from early military conflicts through the Vietnam era. Different era, different label. Battle fatigue, shell shock.

But whatever the label, its diagnosis kept veteran social workers busy. Muench shared a simple theory why PTSD grew in public awareness. During World War I and World War II it was common for soldiers to deploy and return as units, he adds.

"That allowed soldiers to share stories with each other," Muench said.

That changed during Vietnam. During Vietnam more soldiers were deployed as individuals. When their extraction date came, they were shipped home, often on their own, to deal with memories that haunted them.

"They came home isolated. That was not good," Muench said. "They did not have the chance to share their stories."

Muench had an outlet he tapped into when those stories became too powerful to absorb. Muench is an avid outdoorsman. Over his career at the VA Muench found solace as a social worker with soldiers who shared his love of the outdoors.

Muench helped start the local Ducks Unlimited chapter in 1976, then Ladies Ducks Unlimited. He was involved with Conservation Congress efforts.

In 1970 he talked to John Kenny, then owner of the Tomah Journal, about writing an outdoor column for the newspaper.

Ramblings Afield was born and still continues to this day. Muench was published in several other outdoor publications over the years. 

Muench is still seeking a bear hunting publication to share his stories about what sounds like his favorite quarry, at least talking with him this particular day. He vividly recalls years ago bow hunting for bear with his father-in-law near Mellen, perched not in a posh tree stand, but propped by some tree branches.

One shot, one miss. Bear returns. Second shot, second miss. Bear returns. Third shot. Different result. Bear tagged. To this day Muench cannot believe the bear returned three times to his bow sight.

Over the decades tracking through the woods has become more difficult for Muench due to physical ailments. He discovered something equally, if not more enjoyable than gun or bow hunting.

Muench has videotaped bear hunts since the 1990s. Be assured, he has equally tantalizing tales. There was the time he was face to face with a mother bear (sow) with two cubs in tow. Muench was sitting next to a downed tree. Mother bear comes perilously close.

"I was sprayed with apple scent so she likely could not smell the human scent," Muench shares with a storyteller's grin, in the comfort of his office. Or it could have been a completely different scenario.

Muench hopes to author a book on his bear hunting experiences in retirement. When COVID-19 becomes a bad memory for everyone Muench hopes to volunteer at the Tomah VA

His last day at work is Wednesday. That same afternoon Muench already has plans. Not a quiet celebration with wife Betty or friends. He will likely be turkey hunting with longtime friend Roger Brockman.

Muench will be recognized Tuesday with a retirement ceremony beneath the pavilion near the Tomah VA pond.

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