Monday profile: Molnar takes charge of Tomah VA

Molnar, 60, grew up in a blue collar house in Buffalo, N.Y., His father was a blacksmith and a World War II veteran who died in a VA hospital.

He worked as a machinist at Anaconda Brass Co. for 10 years while earning undergraduate and master’s degrees in industrial arts education at the State University of New York-Buffalo.

“Your basic shop teacher” is how he describes his training.

There was a glut of teachers in the area, so in 1978 he took a residency as a rehabilitation therapist at the local VA, teaching things like woodworking, photography and small engine repair. For some veterans, it was career training. For others, therapy.

It was an honor to serve veterans, Molnar said of his career choice. Though he was never deployed, Molnar served in the National Guard from 1971 to 1978.

Molnar worked for about five years as a therapist before getting another master’s degree and moving to the administrative side. He has worked in six VA centers during his 30-year career and came to Tomah in 1993 as associate director.

James Roseborough, director of the Great Lakes Healthcare System who recommended Molnar for the director position, said Molnar “brings stability and commitment to the Tomah service area.

“He’s in touch with the needs and interests of the veterans population we’re serving,” Roseborough said.

Molnar still works with his hands — these days in his home wood and metal shops where he makes furniture and parts for his collection of cameras. He’s in the process of restoring a 1937 Indian motorcycle, though he said he’s had less time for his hobbies since buying a “fixer upper” home on Brice Prairie.

As director of the Tomah VA, Molnar will lead an organization with nearly 1,000 workers and a budget of $100 million with the mission of providing primary, long-term and mental health care for more than 60,000 veterans living in 15 counties in western Wisconsin and southeast Minnesota.

Last year, the hospital treated more than 22,000 veterans — nearly twice as many as in 2001. Molnar attributes this to more community outreach, which includes meeting with returning troops, as well as expanding satellite clinics to include mental health services, as will happen later this month at the La Crosse clinic.

Since the beginning of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the demand for psychological services has exploded, in part because of the stress of multiple deployments, Molnar said. Many National Guard and Reserve units have seen two or three tours of duty — regular troops even more.

“During Vietnam, you kind of knew after two years you were going to go home,” Molnar said.

The VA has also hired a suicide prevention coordinator and a patient advocate to accommodate the demands of today’s vets.

With the equivalent of 760 full-time positions, the hospital is the largest employer in the city of about 8,400 people. And leading an organization that large isn’t without pitfalls.

In the last year, the American Federation of Government Employees Local 1882 has filed more than 25 grievances — compared to about 15 in a usual year, said Lin Ellinghuysen, executive vice president of the employees’ union.

Lois Ames, president of the local union chapter, said the problems come from the Department of Veterans Affairs and the relationship has deteriorated under the Bush administration.

“The VA has been under attack at a national level for the last eight years,” she said.

Ellinghuysen said she is hopeful that as director Molnar “will do the right thing” in terms of employee relations.

Molnar, who touts his own blue collar background and union membership as a metal worker, attributes the friction to the recent expansion of staff and changes in workload expectations.

“This is a very difficult period of change,” he said. “We have increased expectations. That raises stress levels of employees.”

He said he wants to work with the union and to increase communication with the staff.

“If you don’t have a happy employee,” Molnar said, “it’s hard to have a happy veteran.”

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