A cruel irony of military service is that veterans often leave the battlefield, only to return home to a long-term personal battle with health problems that appear to be associated with military service. For those victims of war-related illnesses, Dr. Han K. Kang is making the burden easier to bear. In his dual role as principal investigator of epidemiologic studies of the health effects of military environmental exposures and director of one of the nation’s top clinical centers specializing in evaluation of unexplained veteran illnesses that persist over time, Kang is internationally renowned as an expert on the long-term health problems that stem from exposure to environmental contaminants during military service.
During his 25-year career in the federal government, Kang has studied the effects of radiation from nuclear weapons testing in the 1940s, 50s, and 60s, mustard gas in World War II, Agent Orange and other herbicides in the Vietnam War, and natural and man-made environmental hazards in the Persian Gulf War. His studies have had a national impact, because they have provided the scientific basis for additional research and legislation designed to provide care and compensation for veterans afflicted by war-related illnesses.
One of Kang’s most important areas of study involved assessing the reproductive health of women who served in Vietnam. He found that the children of female Vietnam veterans were at increased risk for birth defects. In 2000, because of Kang’s findings, Congress passed legislation providing special benefits to children with birth defects born to mothers who had served in the war.
Kang has also done groundbreaking work in developing national databases to track survivors of past wars and monitor issues affecting their health. He realized that one of the most difficult aspects of studying the health effects of Agent Orange was that the nation did not have a complete picture of every man and woman who served in Vietnam and where they served. So in the early1990s, with the assistance of the Department of Defense and the National Personnel Records Center, he painstakingly assembled a national roster of living Vietnam veterans. In 1991, Kang tackled the equally mammoth task of creating a national database for soldiers who served in the Persian Gulf War to study the effects of oil well fires and related air pollution exposure on Gulf vets. Currently, Kang is assembling a national roster of Bosnia and Kosovo veterans as well as veterans returning from Afghan and Iraqi theaters. Without comprehensive databases, there is no reliable means for health surveillance and future outreach projects.
According to Kang’s colleagues, he has excelled at ensuring that a potentially controversial issue—whether veterans should be compensated for certain health problems—is truly grounded in the best science. “That’s what makes Dr. Kang remarkable,” says Lt. Colonel Charles Engel, who directs the Department of Defense Deployment Health Clinical Center at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center. “He takes what others see as a political debate and focuses in on the data and, in turn, on what good science tells us.”