“I’m great,” Brendle tells him.
The Vietnam veteran is enjoying coffee with some friends. They go back a long ways.
“All four of us were there in ’68, for the Tet Offensive,” says Bill Williams.
While the collection of vets all served in Vietnam, Brendle is the only one to have earned three Purple Hearts. He’s also the only one to come home paralyzed on his left side and blind in his right eye.
And Brendle is the only Swain County veteran being celebrated — officially, via a resolution passed unanimously by county commissioners — on April 26 with Dockie Brendle Day.
There will be food and drink. And a motorcade en route to the Swain County Senior Center in Bryson City, which starts at 10 a.m. on Veterans Boulevard.
“He’s gonna ride in my six-wheel Polaris Ranger,” smiles fellow veteran Derrell Maxwell. “I’ve got an ahh-ooo-ga horn.”
This celebration of Dockie Brendle isn’t just pleasant pomp and circumstance. It has a specific purpose.
“The naming of the bridge is long overdue,” explains Maxwell. “All of this is supporting the effort to get the bridge named after Dockie.”
Softball, shrapnel and Eisenhower
Dockie Brendle was 21 years old when he was drafted. He approached the task matter-of-factly.
“I was thinking I had a job to do,” Brendle recalls.
During his time in Vietnam, Brendle ran into Bruce Cochran, who he knew from back home. They crossed paths briefly overseas.
“It was down below Saigon. Xuan, that’s where it was,” Cochran remembers. “That was great to see him. He was playing pool when I first saw him.”
The pair caught some R&R. Played some softball. Then parted ways far from home.
“His unit pulled out,” Cochran says. “Don’t know where he went.”
“Down around Cambodia,” Brendle tells him, so many years later sitting in the Bojangles.
Brendle earned his three Purple Hearts as a result of three separate injuries. The injuries seemed to increase in intensity.
“I got shot in the right leg with a M1 carbine,” Brendle says of his first battle wound.
Next, mortar shrapnel hit him in the leg. And later, near Saigon, he was hit in the chest and head by a rocket-propelled grenade.
“I blacked out when it first hit me,” Brendle says. “I had a fellow right behind me, he didn’t make it.”
The soldier spent a while in a hospital in Japan. He was then transferred to Walter Reed medical center in Washington, D.C. That’s where he met former president Dwight D. Eisenhower.
“I met Nixon, Johnson too,” Brendle notes.
But Eisenhower, a five-star general, is the one he seems to remember most fondly. The former president was at Walter Reed tending to his own medical concerns.
“They brought him up there in a wheelchair, and he talked to me for 45 minutes,” Brendle says. “It meant everything.”
Wounded as he was, Brendle was glad to be home from Vietnam. Away from war.
“Like heaven, divine,” he says.
But the reality the returning soldier found in the states wasn’t always receptive. He came back to a country that didn’t always accept him, a culture that didn’t always embrace him.
“Got spit on, got kicked, called baby-killers,” recounts Brindle.
But not back in Bryson City. Things were fine for him there.
“No, no,” he says, “they were glad to have me home.”
Making the case for Dockie
A couple of years ago, Derrel Maxwell attended a bridge dedication in Franklin. Nathan Henry, a Vietnam veteran and former prisoner of war, was having a bridge over U.S. 441 named in his honor.
Some legislators were present at the naming ceremony, and Maxwell mentioned he’d like to see a Swain County bridge named in honor of Brendle.
“They said go for it, Derrell,” he recalls.
But Maxwell’s efforts hit a wall.
“We tried it, but it didn’t fly,” Maxwell says.
Apparently the North Carolina Department of Transportation wasn’t convinced that Brendle warranted a bridge naming. The DOT wanted more evidence of the veteran’s place in the Swain community.
“The original justification was his military service,” says Jonathan Woodard, district engineer with NCDOT, Division 14, explaining that veterans needed to have received a Medal of Valor in order to be considered for naming rights, “Not a Purple Heart.”
Woodard says that DOT requested that the veterans in Swain compile evidence that would demonstrate Brendle’s community involvement following his return home.
“If they could provide some additional information, we’d like to consider it,” he says.
Thus the commissioners’ resolution for Dockie Brendle Day. And the 30 or so letters of support that Maxwell has collected. And the petition that will be available for signing during the April 26 celebration.
“We’re compiling everything,” Maxwell says.
He’s hoping this time will be different. With formal evidence of the community’s support for Brendle and the bridge naming, he’s hoping the DOT approves the request.
“I really feel good about this one this time,” Maxwell says.
While some effort is being made to convince the DOT, Brendle’s buddies say it’s not really necessary to validate the veteran. They talk about how Brendle seems to know everyone. How he was a regular “fence-walker” at local high school football games for years. How he brings a smile to everyone’s face.
“He’s blown taps at hundreds of veterans’ funerals to help comfort the veterans’ families,” Maxwell says.
A familiar stretch
The bridge that Brendle’s friends would like to see named in the Purple Heart recipient’s honor is in the Alarka area. Off U.S. 74, Exit 64.
“It don’t have a name,” says Maxwell.
Already, planted near the bridge, are placeholders.
“We put temporary signs up there,” Maxwell says.
“They’re still up there,” Bill Williams says.
“It’s probably illegal, but everyone in the DOT around here knows Dockie,” Maxwell laughs.
“They drove by when we were doing it,” Williams tells him.
The bridge off Exit 64 is familiar territory for Brendle. He grew up in Alarka. Used to work at a nearby vegetable stand when he was young.
“He walked that bridge thousands of times,” Maxwell says.
“Two or three times a day,” Brendle says.
Walking through the grass for a closer look at the temporary signage, the veterans talk about how “upbeat” and “positive” Brendle has remained despite the injuries he sustained. Brendle talks about the M-16 that Maxwell carved for him out of wood.
Brendle looks up and down the Alarka road. He thinks back to a time long ago. Before the war.
“I use to walk 4 miles before four in the morning,” he laughs.
The veterans continue walking through the roadside grass. Brendle steadies his cane.
“We’ll pick you up if you go down,” Williams assures him.