As a daring 9-year-old, she once popped caffeine pills to one-up her cousin at a game of "who can stay up the latest."
"Every time we saw each other, that's the story we always told -- 'Remember that time at Grandpa's we took caffeine pills to stay up?' " said King's cousin LaVeta King, 24.
The night ended with their grandfather pulling the girls onto his lap on the back porch and watching the sun rise over Clairton, Pa. It's one of the best memories LaVeta King has of her cousin.
King, 23, of Merced, Calif., was a medic assigned to the 115th Combat Support Hospital at Ft. Polk, La. In Iraq, she served at Camp Cropper, a military detainee center near Baghdad International Airport. The military did not provide further details about King's death, except that it was under investigation.
She was the third service member with ties to Merced to die in the war in Iraq, according to The Times' database on Californians killed in the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts.
In an online memorial created by the Merced Sun-Star, Gasper's widow wrote to King's relatives: "my heart goes out to this family, I know first hand what its like to have lost a loved one in this war. I am the wife of SSGT Frank Gasper who was killed in najaf iraq on may 25th 2008, your daughter is in my prayers and she truly is a hero for the sacrifice she has made, god bless Breanna Gasper."
King was serving her first tour of duty after joining the Army in May 2007. She was assigned to the 115th Combat Support Hospital in December, and her unit was deployed to Iraq in May.
The eldest daughter of an Air Force official, King was born in Altus, Okla., and lived in California, Panama and Hawaii before graduating from Rancocas Valley Regional High School in Mt. Holly, N.J., in 2003.
King took to the constant relocation like a "chameleon," making friends easily and getting along with people of vastly different backgrounds, said her father, Brian King, 47, of Severn, Md.
He said his daughter loved being an older stepsister to Alexandra King, 7, and Brian King, 5. "Whenever she came home, she'd tell us, 'Please go out so we can have fun,' " he said. "They would joke around, play, pull out board games -- Chutes and Ladders, Candyland -- and just enjoy each other's company."
Brian King last spoke to his daughter by phone Aug. 13 from the post office where he was preparing to send her a care package. The next day, he got the message that she had died.
An aspiring emergency medical technician, she would tear through books in three days that most people might take months to read, her father said. Growing up, she dabbled in sports, playing the violin and cooking -- even attending a culinary arts institute in San Francisco briefly after high school.
"She was a ball of hilarity," said LaVeta King, of Silver Spring, Md. "She'd run around making people laugh. During her time in service, she lit everyone up, from what I heard. That's Janelle in a complete nutshell. She lived her life from one passionate whim to another. You knew when she stepped into a room."
King was buried at Ft. Sill Post Cemetery in Lawton, Okla.
In addition to her father, stepbrother and stepsister, she is survived by her mother, Jamecia Jackson of Merced; and her stepmother, Tamara King.
Brian King said his daughter's death makes his own work in the Air Force harder at times.
"On occasion . . . I see some of the young ladies in Army attire and it makes me think of my daughter," he said. "You gotta take that deep breath and keep walking."
Ho is a Times staff writer.