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VA Phoenix social worker on leave for Halloween costume

| Thursday, Nov. 26, 2015, 12:01 a.m.

A social worker at the troubled Veterans Affairs hospital in Phoenix has been placed on leave because he wore a Halloween costume to work that appeared to mock a disabled Marine who was punished for reporting the mishandling of suicidal veterans.

The social worker's supervisor, who allegedly allowed him to wear the costume all day, also has been placed on administrative leave, officials said, while the VA brings in outside investigators to sort out what happened.

“In the scheme of things, this was not in good taste,” Jean Schaefer, spokeswoman for the Phoenix VA, said of Jeremy Pottle, who went to work Oct. 30 wearing a blond wig with blond ponytail, fake beard and fake Marine Corps tattoos, a cane and a pillow under his shirt to give himself the appearance of having a pot belly, according to witnesses.

“Employees and supervisors have a responsibility to make sure that when people come to work, they're dressed appropriately,” Schaefer said, acknowledging that the Phoenix facility “has been under a microscope for a few years.”

“We are conducting a fact-finding investigation,” she said. “If the investigation supports it, corrective actions will be taken.” Pottle has apologized to his colleague, Brandon Coleman, and to his supervisors, saying he meant no harm.

The prank was especially sensitive because Coleman has been fighting to keep suicidal veterans from killing themselves.

Coleman, who was a mortar man with the 1st Marines based at Camp Pendleton, Calif., was one of the VA employees who last year exposed long wait times that were manipulated by scheduling staffers to make it appear that veterans were receiving care faster than they were.

After his disclosures, Coleman, an addiction therapist as well who walks with a cane because of a foot injury that required nine surgeries, was placed on paid leave, where he has been for 10 months. He says he is working with the Office of Special Counsel on a return to work outside the Phoenix VA main hospital, “allowing me to get back to helping veterans get clean and sober.”

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