Charley Rochlin is gone now, killed when a car he was riding in crashed into a tree in the early hours of Dec. 27.

He was taken from the U.S. Marines, where he served as lance corporal and recently returned from a seven-month tour in Al Asad, Iraq. He was taken from the town of Westport, where he spent his youth, graduated from Staples High School and had many friends. And he was taken from his family, the oldest of four children, his parent's only son.

He was 24 years old.

On a recent evening, the Rochlin family -- parents Scott and Lucretia, sisters Brittany, Kendall and Taylor -- gathered in their living room beside a warm fire to remember Charley.

They recalled a vibrant, playful, confident young man with a light-hearted swagger; a caring brother who never touched a Christmas present until his younger sisters had opened their presents first.

His sisters wore pendants around their necks, engraved with the first letter of their names. This was Charley's final Christmas present to them, given the day before he died. They also wore his military dog-tags.

His youngest sister, Taylor, 9, was draped in a David Wright Mets jersey that Charley owned. He would wear that shirt to the baseball games in Queens, N.Y., that he and Taylor attended at least once a year.

His middle sister, Kendall, 12, wore the varsity letter jacket he earned while playing hockey at Fairfield Prep. It was No. 23.

Hockey, for a long time, was Charley's passion. He played on the varsity team at Fairfield Prep for three years. As a freshman and sophomore, the team won back-to-back state championships. But during his junior season, a player skated over one of his forearms, injuring him so severely that he needed seven hours of surgery. After that, his competitive hockey days were over, and he transferred to Staples High School for his senior year to graduate with his childhood friends.

That was the year that Brittany, his oldest sister, now 21, was a freshman at Staples. She remembers fondly having a ride to school everyday instead of having to take the bus. The experience brought the siblings closer together. A few years later, they spent a summer living together at their grandmother's house on a beach in Fairfield. Later, Brittany accompanied Charley on a cross-country drive to Colorado as he entered his second year at college.

Without competitive hockey to play, Charley turned increasingly to golf, at which he excelled, once winning the junior championships in a tournament at Longshore.

He worked at the Longshore First Tee during summers and at the ice rink in the winter. There, he taught Kendall, and a cousin, to play hockey. Occasionally, he would sneak his dog, Bruin, onto the zamboni for loops around the ice.

After Staples, Charley went to the University of Colorado for three years. Taylor remembers him sending her frequent letters through the mail from Boulder, Colo., which she has stored in her bedroom. She singled out one particular letter she received while in kindergarten. Two years later, as a second grader at Coleytown Elementary, Taylor brought her brother into class for show and tell. The Rochlins have several pictures from that day, the class huddling around their guest, giggling and smiling.

Charley returned to Westport after three years of college, and spent time at home sorting out his future plans. He did what most kids his age would do: he slept in, played video games and allowed his past experiences to settle. His next move took him south in the spring of 2008 to Parris Island, S.C. Specifically, he went to the Marine Corps Recruit Depot for boot camp. The last chapter of his life would begin.

Boot camp lasted three months and his family flew down for the graduation ceremony to watch him finish. His cousin, Blake, came too. Blake, his family said, idolized Charley, and said he wants to join the marines after graduating from high school. He's now 16.

Before the trip to Parris Island, the family made matching T-shirts to celebrate. Their first glimpse of Charley came as they stood on a sidewalk and the recruits ran by during a long-distance exercise. Charley zipped past, looking lean, and also peculiar with his combat goggles on. Soldiers can't wear contact lenses on the job. Charley's thick-rimmed bifocals resembled World War II-era pilot goggles.

The Rochlins have a photo album from that weekend stocked with pictures. In one picture, Charley is standing tall, chest out, arms spread, rejoicing that boot camp is finally done. Taylor is standing beside him, beaming with pride. The two are standing in a sand pit where soldiers are sent for punishment. Charley, his mom, Lucretia, said, chuckling, was no stranger to that sand pit. He bid it adieu.

"I'm free!" Lucretia said, staring at the picture.

In the next shot, Charley's walking out of the camera's frame. Taylor's been ordered down to the sand. She's doing push-ups.

Boot camp gave way to infantry school in North Carolina, culminating in Charley's deployment to Iraq in early 2009. His family remembers spending hours in front of a single laptop computer, video-chatting with Charley, who was using Taylor's laptop on the base. His parents and sisters were squeezing, shoving and jostling for the best spot in front of the camera in Westport.

"I want to talk to my son!" Lucretia would say.

"Well I want to talk to my brother!" a sister would counter.

Charley, observing the struggle from some 6,000 miles removed, would reply, "Well, I'm glad to see things haven't changed in Westport."

On another occasion, late at night in Iraq, Lucretia exclaimed, "Charley, you look so good!"

"Shhhh!" he cut her off. "Everyone's sleeping here."

When he returned home last September, Charley was thoroughly "ripped," his family said. Skin, bones and muscle: not one ounce of fat. But a few days in Westport eating his favorite meals changed that. Traces of flab began to materialize. His sisters would grab it.

"Mayonnaise! Mayonnaise!" they'd joke.

Since September, Charley had been stationed at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina. He made one trip home this past Thanksgiving and the family hired a professional photographer to shoot an album with Scott's brother's family in Easton. A slideshow from that shoot on the family computer runs several minutes long. It cycles between goofy, playful and earnest shots.

This September, Charley was scheduled to deploy to the mountains of Afghanistan. He would have begun his cold-weather training this month. At his funeral last week, almost a dozen of his fellow soldiers arrived in Westport from up and down the Eastern seaboard. Now they will begin their preparations a man short.

One neighbor of the Rochlins seemed to sum up the family's memories well.

"Charley," he said, "is a hero, a patriot and was a wonderful son, brother and friend to many."