The family of a McKeesport veteran whose name and U.S. Army service number are being used as decorations on a series of purses and handbags are considering legal action against the companies importing them.
Jennifer Sopko, granddaughter of Thomas Piotrowski Sr., 90, said her family has consulted an attorney specializing in intellectual property law and will decide what action to take.
Separately, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Army in Arlington, Va., said government lawyers are investigating whether the use of the Army's trademarked name and seal, along with a veteran's service number, violated federal law.
Sopko, a board member at Tube City Community Media Inc., parent organization of Tube City Almanac, said the image of her grandfather's honorable discharge papers was taken, without her permission, from a copyrighted blog post she wrote about his service in the Philippines during and after World War II.
She said she knows that people steal images from the Internet all the time --- but Sopko said she never dreamed that someone would steal her grandfather's name and service number and use it to decorate purses.
"I feel bad because I posted it originally and I am aware of the risk," she said.
Sopko's grandfather, formerly of Christy Park, is currently at an assisted-living facility in North Huntingdon Twp., and is in poor health, but his daughter and son told Tube City Almanac last week that they never granted permission for their dad's name to be used on commercial products.
Alison Bettencourt, director of public affairs for the U.S. Army Marketing and Research Group, said the agency will contact the companies that are importing the purses and handbags from India and selling them through retail outlets around the United States.
"The U.S. Army Legal Services Agency is currently investigating the reader's complaints about the use of Army trademarks on these commercial products," Bettencourt told Tube City Almanac. "When we become aware of issues like this, there is a legal process that must occur and we're unable to comment as that proceeds, in order to protect the integrity of the process."
The companies importing the items, Myra Bags of Jodhpur City, India, and Chloe & Lex of Gig Harbor, Wash., have not responded to messages left by Tube City Almanac.
On June 6 --- nearly a week after being notified of the problem --- Chloe & Lex was still taking orders for a bag called "Crossbody United States" with Piotrowski's name on it.
Sopko learned that her grandfather's name and ID number were being used on the items when someone purchased one of the handbags at a boutique in Dallas, Texas; did an Internet search for his name; and found Sopko's 2013 article, "My Veteran: Private First Class Thomas Alexander Piotrowski, Sr."
Sopko, a former Almanac correspondent, said she has gotten conflicting messages from the manufacturers and the stores selling the items.
A representative of an Indian supplier wrote to her claiming that the use of her grandfather's name and service number was "coincidentally" similar.
"The designer objective is to print some cool message and Prints," wrote "Khemchand Handicrafts" in a message Sopko shared with Tube City Almanac. "I really sorry for this. But please convey our loves and regards for him."
Sopko said she isn't buying the notion that the company "coincidentally" came up with the name Thomas Piotrowski Sr. and his service number. "It's a carbon copy!" she said.
Although some stores that Sopko has contacted have been apologetic and promised to stop selling the items, one store wrote to Sopko to say it wasn't their problem.
“We don’t design the bags we sell, you should talk to the vendor,” Sopko said she was told.
"It’s just a disgusting mindset all around," she said. "And like dumb criminals, they included evidence. If they only took the Army emblem, it’s still wrong, but I wouldn’t have found out."
Originally published June 06, 2018.