In a U.S. Air Force court of appeals here on Oct. 15, a bizarre and nearly unbelievable story of heavy-handed military justice unfolded.

At the center of the case is Joann Newak, who joined the Air Force in August 1979. She was a recent graduate of Marywood College, a small Catholic liberal arts school in Scranton, Pa. For the past four months, Lt. Newak, now 25, has been imprisoned on a six-year sentence at hard labor in a military jail at Ft. Leavenworth, Kan.

Newak finds herself locked away, and with her life possibly in ruins, for being found guilty by an Air Force court of first offenses that were not only nonviolent but would probably not be prosecuted in civilian courts.

During off-duty hours at Hancock Field near Syracuse, N.Y., where she was stationed and where she assumed that her private life in her off-base apartment was not subject to the military code, Newak occasionally smoked marijuana, had an affair with a woman and believed some pills in her possession were amphetamines when, by the Air Force's own tests, they were actually diet pills.

In civilian America, recreational pot users are rarely if ever imprisoned. People aren't jailed for their sexual orientation. And someone who mistakes diet pills for speed has yet to be seen as a dangerous criminal.

But under the military code, these are major crimes. What is happening now to Newak was described by Robert Sherrill in his 1969 book, "Military Justice Is To Justice What Military Music Is To Music": "It is one of the ironies of patriotism that a (person) who is called to the military service of his country may anticipate not only the possibility of giving his life but also the certainty of giving up his liberties. . . . The Bill of Rights has had little or no relevance to the code of justice governing the military."

Over the phone last week from her prison, Newak, an intelligent woman who is able to retain a sense of hope despite her ordeal, told of having liked the Air Force. She was proud of her excellent performance record that was leading, at the time of her court-martial in March, to a sure promotion to first lieutenant.

Newak is from a small town in Pennsylvania, the daughter of a registered nurse and sister of a schoolteacher. Her father is deceased. At Marywood, she earned a degree in health and physical education.

Newak recalled that even during her trial -- when Air Force prosecutors flew in low to strafe her case with the full firepower of the letter of the law -- she did not believe she would be sentenced to prison for these minor first offenses. At worst, she expected a reprimand. Possibly, if the book were to be thrown and knowing that her interpretation of the military code about one's personal life differed from the Air Force's, she might be dismissed from the Air Force.

During the appeal of this case, evidence presented by Newak's civilian lawyer, Faith Seidenberg of Syracuse, suggested that Newak was badly served by the Air Force attorney first assigned to defend her. He had a conflict of interest, because he was also defending an airwoman he had persuaded to testify, under immunity, against Newak. He admitted to telling the airwoman that Newak "was going down the tubes." That was an out-of-place comment for a defense lawyer to make about his client.

This lawyer was removed from the case once the conflict of interest and his biases became apparent. But Seidenberg argued persuasively that by then, in the tight Air Force circles in which Newak was being accused, tried, judged and sentenced, the damage had been done. It was a fair assessment because, in fact, Newak did eventually go down the Air Force tubes.

The height of military wackiness in this case is that Newak was found guilty of having amphetamines because she "believed," as the Air Force charged, they were amphetamines. Thought control may be a major juridical priority of the military, but in civilian courts it is a legal impossibility to think you are committing a crime when nothing in your possession or actions actually is criminal.

Newak's appeal is expected to be decided in three weeks by three Air Force judges. Of Seidenberg's argument that her client has been unfairly treated and excessively punished, the chief Air Force lawyer in the case attempted to put it down as mere "interesting social commentary (that) is not persuasive here. (Newak) was not tried in a New York court; she was tried in a military court. And in a military court, appellant's offenses are criminal acts."

That states it with chilling preciseness. Newak, who in the Air Force was neither a hardened drug abuser nor anywhere near being a troublemaker, thought she could serve her country and still keep her personal life to herself. She now knows she had a delusion.