Shedreamt back to the bookcase in one of the rooms of her house in a small town in Northeastern Pennsylvania. In her mind, she would count the books, over and over. She pictured the carved wooden elephant and the Russian nesting dolls sitting on the shelves.
Anything to transport herself out of the walls of Leavenworth Military Prison.
“I would be at home and seeing the snow fall,” she recalls. “I would be at the window and watching the snowflakes fall softly. I would feel the snow fall on my body.”
Or she’d be up on a roof. An airplane would come to rescue her.
Joann Newak had been sentenced to seven years hard labor. She was 23 years old, just coming to terms with her attraction to women. It landed her in maximum security military prison.
“The very first lesbian relationship I had was with the partner that testified against me at my court marshall,” she says. “It’s like screwing around for the first time and getting pregnant. That was my first experience.”
The year wasn’t 1930. The country wasn’t on some far-flung continent. It was 1982. She was stationed in New York.
Newak is among an estimated 100,000 LGBTQ former service members that were discharged without an “honorable” distinction. When “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” (DADT) the military policy banning service members from serving openly, was repealed, their discharges were never upgraded.
More than 30 years later, she considers, for the first time, that she may be owed an honorable discharge. Her attorney, Elizabeth Kristen, says they are going to pursue legal options to obtain one.
Newak’s story is complicated and painful. She came from a proud military family. During WWII her father was a merchant marine and her mother a nurse. Her uncle was a captain in the navy. Several other relatives had served.
“I was very patriotic, and I loved my country,” she says. “I thought it would be a good opportunity to pursue the Air Force also further my education.”
She attended Syracuse University and was commissioned in 1979. She was stationed at Hancock Field Air Force Base in Syracuse where she enjoyed the work. But in 1981, things changed.
According to Newak and court documents, it started with a female airman who was facing her own charges of driving while intoxicated. The airman reported Newak’s relationship with her girlfriend, Lynne Peelman, in exchange for leniency.
Court documents reveal that the Air Force Office of Special Investigations (OSI) directed the airman to go undercover to dig up information on Newak and Peelman. During that time, the airman pretended to ingest what the group assumed were amphetamines and smoke cigarettes laced with marijuana.
The “amphetamines” turned out to be diet pills.
Newak and Peelman were told they were under investigation. There were assigned the same attorney, Captain Raymond Smith. But Peelman was offered immunity to testify against Newak.
“They pulled me into the JAG Office or whatever it’s called, and they essentially ordered me to testify,” Peelman says. “They told me I had to. ‘If you don’t this is what’s going to happen to you.’”
Smith resigned as Newak’s attorney, but stayed on as Peelman’s counsel while she testified against Newak.
Newak was sentenced to seven years hard labor in maximum security prison at Fort Leavenworth, Kan.
Newak fought to appeal her conviction, arguing that it was a conflict of interest for Smith to represent the woman testifying against her when he previously had access to privileged client information.
The Air Force rejected that claim.
For the first five months, she lived in almost complete isolation. Unlike the other women at Leavenworth, she was not allowed to take meals or sleep in the same room as her peers.
“You become very institutionalized, when you go to eat, when you go to work,” she says. “Lockdown is at night, when all the lights are out. It was really bad.”
Her punishment was so severe and so shocking that it caused a media firestorm. In 1982, the Washington Post wrote about the “bizarre and nearly unbelievable story of heavy-handed military justice.”
“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,” the Post wrote.
The following July, the same reporter wrote that his letters to Newak were being opened by prison staff without justification.
“By making an example of her, it was sending the message to gays, and others whose private behavior was suspect, to keep away,” Colman McCarthy argued. “To those already in, a warninglove the wrong sex or smoke a joint, and you’ll be jailed.”
The negative press had an impact. Newak’s sentence was reduced from seven to six years. Then it was cut in half to three years. She ended up serving 14 and a half months. She was released on parole for two years.
Newak was “dismissed” from the Air Force, the equivalent of a dishonorable discharge for officers.
She couldn’t go home. Her family was humiliated.
“Being from a small town, it was really looked down on,” she says. “I was embarrassed. My mother, she was embarrassed. My older sister was afraid it would affect her and her teaching job.”
Feeling like her family didn’t want to having anything to do with her, transferred her parole to Syracuse where she stayed for two years.
“I would have done anything to protect my country,” she says. “And I still feel that way. But I was branded. I was proud and I was stripped of it completely. They wanted to stamp me out completely like I didn’t exist at all.”
Her dismissal meant she was never eligible for military benefits like home loans or low-cost medical care. And she lost the career she loved.
So did Peelman.
In July 1982, the Air Force sent her packing with an honorable discharge. But the discharge was stamped with the designation of “sexual perversion and conduct unbecoming.”
“I just so regret how everything conspired,” she says of testifying against Newak. “What I should have done was sought out my own lawyer, but damn we were young and naive and there was nobody to ask anything to.”
Peelman became a postal carrier. It was a good job, a job she loved. It wasn’t her calling. It wasn’t the military. And she never got over testifying against Newak or the fallout from that.
Newak has done a lot to distance herself from the pain of her incarceration. She only told people closest to her what happened in the military. She has lived in fear it would ruin her, cost her her job.
Today, she works at CVS. She has a partner of 14 years. She lives in California, far away from Leavenworth or Hancock Air Force Base.
“All these decades or years that have gone by it’s almost like it was erased from my memory,” she says.
But earlier this year, a 90-year-old lesbian won her bid for honorable discharge after 60 years of living with the same humiliation Newak felt. Helen Grace James made national headlines in January when the Air Force finally gave her an honorable discharge.
Newak’s sister Kim read that story and called James’ attorney, Elizabeth Kristen at Legal Aid at Work.
The memories flooded back, but instead of being nervous or letting the bad feelings take over, Newak thought about what it mean if she won an honorable discharge. She deserved that. She would have done anything to protect country back then. In fact, she still would.
“I thought, ‘Well, I’m 60, what the hell am I afraid of?’” she says.
The U.S. Air Force did not respond to a request to comment.