CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. (AP) _ He's talking again!

The brain-damaged police officer who spoke to his family after 7 1/2 years of silence, then had to undergo lung surgery that risked returning him to a comalike state, uttered his first words Wednesday since the operation.

Gary Dockery spoke three times Wednesday, proof that his 18 hours of conversation on Feb. 12 wasn't a fluke, doctors said.

In the morning, a nurse asked Dockery his name, which he repeated twice. Dr. James Folkening then rushed to his bedside and unsuccessfully tried to engage Dockery in conversation.

Then Folkening had the nurse ask him what was time it was and ``he simply and quietly uttered a single word, `night,''' the doctor said. Doctors speculated that Dockery, whose room didn't have windows, may have been disoriented about the time of day.

Neurologist Bruce Kaplan later asked Dockery the same question and he replied, ``3 o'clock.'' It was 12:45 p.m. _ an inversion of the clock's big and little hands. ``I am going to give him nearly full credit,'' Kaplan said.

Kaplan said Dockery's ability to speak distinctly on three separate occasions ``clearly proves this is more than just an isolated incident.''

The words were Dockery's first since undergoing surgery Feb. 15 to remove infectious fluid from his lung.

Family members were contacted, and were allowed to visit him in pairs. Doctors said his physical condition was improving, but they didn't want to rush his recovery, since he is still quite ill.

Dockery, 42, was moved from a nursing home to Columbia Parkridge Medical Center on Feb. 11 for treatment of life-threatening pneumonia. He amazed everyone the next day by unexpectedly speaking for the first time since 1988.

For 18 hours, he recalled camping trips with his buddies and the names of his friends and horses. He called his mother and brother on the telephone.

Dockery also talked with his two sons, who were ages 5 and 12 when he was shot in the head when answering a trouble call at Walden, a mountain community 10 miles northwest of Chattanooga.

The family had visited him often at the nursing home, but Dockery was able to communicate only occasionally, and only by blinking his eyes, nodding his head, grimacing or moaning.

Dockery's mother claimed her son spoke over the weekend, answering ``yep'' to a question, but doctors said no comprehensive speech was confirmed until Wednesday.

Doctors expect to decide Thursday whether to move Dockery from the intensive care unit to a regular hospital room. He will then undergo neurological testing.

Kaplan said he hasn't yet determined why Dockery began speaking again after a silence of more than seven years. He said the ability was most likely always there, but something as-yet unexplained triggered it.

One possibility, he said, was a medication or combination of medications that Dockery received after he was hospitalized that he hadn't been given during his years at the nursing home.

Kaplan cautioned that even if medications had restored Dockery's speech, they probably wouldn't have the same effect on other patients. ``This is an exceedingly unique situation,'' he said.

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EDITORS: Mail to Dockery can be addressed to Gary Dockery, P.O. Box 22592, Chattanooga, Tenn., 37422. Financial contributions may be sent to The Gary Dockery Fund, c/o Baxie Corena Thompson, Rossville Bank 677435, P.O. Box 638, Rossville, Ga. 30741