As inspiring as the championship seasons of the Red Sox and Patriots were, the true heroes of 2004 were the hundreds of New Hampshire men and women - as well as those from across the country - who departed for Iraq with the aim of bringing stability and democracy to a wounded nation. No matter an individual’s position on the Iraq invasion, support runs strong for the servicemen and women who have put their civilian lives on hold for a cause well outside the daily routines of most Americans. This recognition also extends to troops serving in Afghanistan, other posts abroad and here in the States. But guiding Iraq down a path of liberty and justice proved the most difficult mission this past year. Insurgents bent on disturbing the process have tortured, shot, bombed and beheaded indiscriminately. An untold number of Iraqis have been killed, and more than 1,300 U.S. soldiers have died since the war started. As 2004 began, the New Hampshire Army National Guard continued its largest call-up since World War II, involving about 900 soldiers. Families have been left to pray for the safe return of their loved ones as stories and images of exploding roadside bombs and insurgent ambushes splashed across the front pages of this and other newspapers and on home television screens. And as many troops prepared to leave, others came home to appreciative families, whether on temporary leave or at mission’s end. One unit, the 94th Army Reserve Military Police - based in Londonderry - was scheduled to come home from Iraq several times, only to have its deployment extended. Family members brought their complaints straight to the Pentagon, and finally secured the unit’s homecoming. Many soldiers’ stories stand out, so many that they can’t fit into this story. But some will linger for years. Six New Hampshire servicemen died in Operation Iraqi Freedom: Marine Lance Cpl. Adam Brooks, Army Spc. Alan Burgess, Army Sgt. Richard Ferguson, Army Spc. Jeremy Regnier, Army Sgt. Robert Rooney and Army Sgt. Randy Rosenberg. Another soldier, Merrimack resident, husband and father Dave Guindon, 48, killed himself a day after returning from Iraq with his National Guard unit.