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Above: A handbag with Tom Piotrowski Sr.'s name and Army discharge papers is being sold around the world by two companies. His family says the companies never got permission to use the image or his name.
The family of a McKeesport-area veteran was shocked to learn that two companies have reproduced his Army discharge papers --- and his name --- on purses and handbags made in India and sold around the world.
Thomas Piotrowski Sr., 90, currently resides in an assisted living facility in North Huntingdon Twp. His family hasn't yet told him what happened, but they want answers from Myra Bags, an Indian firm, and Chloe & Lex, based in Gig Harbor, Wash., which are selling the handbags decorated with Piotrowski's name and discharge papers.
The image was apparently taken, without permission, from an article written by Piotrowski's granddaughter, Jennifer Sopko.
"When did this start?" asked Piotroswki's son, Tom Jr. "How long have they been doing this? Did they manufacture 10,000 of these? 500? I don't know. And is he the only veteran they've done this to?"
The handbag vendors "have been thieves from the beginning," Tom Piotrowski Jr. said, adding that he's not sure what would be just compensation.
Tom Piotrowski Sr.'s daughter, Carol Sopko of White Oak, said she has power of attorney for her father's estate. She was never contacted by either Myra Bags or Chloe & Lex to ask permission to use her father's name on their products, she said.
"It seems to me they illegally got (the image) off of Jennifer's blog," Carol Sopko said. "I don't know what to do. Are we supposed to go to India, or what? Is it just my father they've done this to, or are there other veterans?"
Both Myra Bags and Chloe & Lex specialize in purses, handbags and other items that incorporate "vintage" advertisements and images, but it's unclear why Piotrowski's discharge papers were used on the items.
Messages sent to Myra Bags by Tube City Almanac were not returned as of press time Thursday.
A message left for Chloe & Lex owner Michele Henery on Wednesday morning by Tube City Almanac was not returned, though a woman answering the phone at the company's office said they were aware of the situation, and that the bags were sourced from a supplier in India.
One of the bags --- called "Crossbody United States" --- was still available for wholesale purchase on Chloe & Lex's website Thursday. A retail website was selling the bags for $52 each on Wednesday.
Another, smaller handbag --- called a "wristlet" --- has also surfaced, decorated with Piotroswki's name and discharge.
Sopko, a former Tube City Almanac contributor who now serves as a board member for its parent organization, Tube City Community Media Inc., said she is meeting with an attorney to find out what her legal rights are.
Her 2013 article about her grandfather, entitled "My Veteran: Private First Class Thomas Alexander Piotrowski, Sr.," was copyrighted.
In addition, the symbols of America's armed forces are trademarks of the U.S. Department of Defense.
A spokesman for the U.S. Army told Tube City Almanac on Wednesday they are also investigating to see if the use of Piotrowski's discharge papers --- including the Army's seal --- to decorate handbags violated the Army's trademarks or broke any laws.
Above: Tom Piotrowski Sr., left, while serving in the U.S. Army in the Phillipines. Courtesy Jennifer Sopko.
Piotrowski, a Liberty Borough native and graduate of McKeesport Technical High School, was drafted into the Army after the surrender of Japan and served for 14 months in an ordnance company, mainly in the South Pacific.
Honorably discharged in 1947, he settled in Christy Park and began working at U.S. Steel's National Works before retiring in 1986.
Sopko learned that her grandfather's name was being used on handbags when a woman in Dallas, Texas, purchased one of them from a store there. The woman did an Internet search on Piotrowski's name, found Sopko's article, and emailed Sopko.
Sopko called the situation "bizarre."
"And it disgusts me that a veteran’s service was commercialized, reduced to a commodity," she said. "How many others has this happened to?"
Sopko said she got very little assistance when she called Chloe & Lex to complain. A man who claimed to represent Myra Bag called Sopko from India, but she said the conversation "led nowhere."
"He couldn’t tell me who he worked for, only that management was not in and would be back next week," Sopko said. "The only thing he said was 'children' from 'the university' get images from the Internet. I tried to explain why that is wrong, but he clearly didn’t get it."
The unidentified man would not give Sopko the name of a manager or any information about the factory that made the bags.
Sopko is getting better cooperation from the retailers who are selling the bags, including the store in Dallas that sold the bag to the woman who originally alerted Sopko to the problem.
The store, called Fete-ish, told Sopko in writing it would not sell the product again and that it had called Myra Bag's U.S. representative to complain.
"My father was a World War II veteran and to his dying day always had difficulty discussing that time in his life," owner Chad Vogel wrote to Sopko in a message she shared with Tube City Almanac. "I would never want to diminish his or any veteran’s contribution by commercializing their service.
Vogel told Sopko that the manufacturer's rep told him they were ordering the company to pull any merchandise with Piotrowski's name on it.
Above: Tom Piotrowski Sr. in a more recent photo. Courtesy Jennifer Sopko.
Piotrowski's family said they're not sure what would be just compensation for the misuse of their father and grandfather's identity, but that a donation of the profits to a veteran's organization would be the least the companies could do.
"It's hard for me to say, because in a way, they're honoring my father," Tom Piotrowski Jr. said. "But the way they did it is dishonorable. I want them to stop profiting from him."
Originally published May 31, 2018.