In federal court yesterday, Lois Pope cried as she said she was "very, very sorry."

Her lawyer called the 61-year-old grandmother "tragic" and said she stole funds from old servicemen because she was trying to "buy love."

But U.S. District Court Judge Thomas F. Hogan, saying Pope and her children had indulged themselves at the expense of the helpless, sentenced the former financial officer at the U.S. Soldiers' and Airmens' Home to two to six years in federal prison for taking money from patients' bank accounts. He also ordered her to pay back the $173,000 she admitted taking from the bank accounts of seriously ill patients.

Pope, of Annapolis, worked 14 years at the Soldiers' Home on North Capitol Street in Washington, most of them as the patient's finance officer who was supposed to handle the personal funds of patients too weak or confused to do so themselves.

Last October she pleaded guilty to stealing $173,000 either by using patients' funds to buy blank money orders that she then cashed herself or by setting up joint bank accounts with them, from which she drew money out for her own use.

The guilty plea covered funds taken from 32 patients between March 1980 and October 1983. But in papers filed later federal prosecutors said Army investigators found evidence that similar thefts were going on at least as far back as 1977.

The prosecutors said investigators found an additional $177,000 in unaccounted for expenditures from the accounts of the same 32 victims. They suspect the funds were used by Pope for her own purposes. This brings the total amount missing to more than $350,000, the prosecutors said.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Carol E. Bruce said Pope used the money to buy boats, luxury cars and a house on Maryland's Eastern Shore.

She said four of the joint bank accounts through which Pope acknowledged funneling $48,000 of the stolen funds were established within the last seven months of the patients' lives.

Pope's lawyer, Mark H. Tuohey III, said Pope took the funds not because of greed, "but rather out of fear and desperation." He said she was trying "to buy the love and affection that she never had in her life" by purchasing things for her children and husband. He said Pope's husband threatened to beat her.

In court papers Tuohey said Pope already had put more than $30,000 into an escrow fund to make restitution and promised to add more by selling her property, cars, and jewelry.

Pope told the court she would continue to make restitution whether she went to jail or not because "I won't be able to live with myself unless I [ay back the funds]."

"I know what I did was wrong," she declared. "I know I violated the trust that was given to me."

She added that she "rationalized my borrowing [the money] because these were people that I loved and they would want me to have the money."

But Judge Hogan said the prison sentence was warranted.

"This wasn't a one or two time matter," he said. "But a sophisticated approach to obtain funds and property."

Under federal prison system policy Pope will be eligible for parole in 16 months.