Nov 28, 2023

Cancer Survivor’s Transformative Journey and Passion for Giving Back

The Scroll News
Cancer Survivor’s Transformative Journey and Passion for Giving Back

After a career serving more than a dozen assignments, many overseas, Col. Dan Semsel, USAF, Ohio ’88, retired and settled in Dayton, Ohio. Midway through his military career, he was diagnosed with thyroid cancer. During Dan’s second round of surgeries, a fellow officer convinced him to run the Honolulu Marathon. That race was the beginning of a lifelong love of running and racing. He also began offering training to other runners. Dan’s service mentality continued after he retired from the US Air Force. He worked with Goodwill Easter Seals to help local veterans before moving on to Montgomery County Veteran’s Services. Dan is now working at Destination Marathons, providing VIP travel services to runners.

Tell us what brought you to Ohio University and how you came to join Phi Delta Theta.

Ohio University (OU) was an easy call for me. I was a townie. My father was on the faculty, so it made OU a fiscal decision. Most of my friends from high school also went to OU.

Joining Phi Delta Theta was a longer journey. My big brother, Shawn Caldwell, ’88, was also in Air Force ROTC and had been trying to get me to join for two years. I finally decided to attend spring recruitment in 1986, hoping he would stop bugging me. The funny part was that I surprised myself and enjoyed meeting the active members. Phi Delta Theta was much more laid back than I expected from a fraternity. I felt very comfortable and accepted the bid. I was initiated in the fall of 1986 at the beginning of my junior year with Bond Number 1690.

What were some of your fondest memories of Phi Delta Theta, and what role did it play in your future?

I have a lot of great memories, but I think being the goalie for the Phi Delta Theta Ice Buffoons Broomball Team had to be up there. There’s nothing like going to Bird Arena at 0100 to play an intramural sport on the ice while wearing athletic shoes. We did rather well as a team and lived up to our name.

The most critical role that Phi Delta Theta played for me was helping me realize you can connect with people from all walks of life to accomplish a mission. At Phi Delta Theta, we were usually among the best at philanthropic efforts and were recognized for that. We also faced challenges, such as losing the 57 East State Street house. That could have doomed our brotherhood when we were trying to build momentum. We weathered that storm and maintained our impact on the community and university.

What motivated you to make a vocation in the US Air Force? What were some of your most exciting assignments over your career?

I joined the Air Force to honor my four-year commitment to being an AFROTC cadet. My original intent was to do my four years and get out to pursue a career in the private sector. But things have a way of changing, and I found that I had a knack for military service and leadership. After my deployment to Operation Desert Storm, I knew I wanted to make the Air Force my profession. I retired as a colonel after twenty-five years of service in 2013.

Over that time, I had twelve assignments and five deployments: four to the Middle East and one to Central and South America, so it’s hard to single anything out. I had a nonstandard career, so I spent a lot of time working with the other services and deployed to Operation Iraqi Freedom with the Army’s 1st Cavalry doing combat convoy operations. I was a recovery team lead at the Pentagon on 9/11 during my assignment to Andrews Air Force Base, and that horrific day shaped everything that came afterward for me. Camp Smith, Hawaii, was the most pleasant location, and my final squadron command at Minot Air Force Base, North Dakota, was my favorite assignment.

Tell us how you got into marathon running, ultramarathons, and Iron Man competitions. What was the motivation, and what have you accomplished in this area?

I was diagnosed with cancer in 2001 and underwent surgery and radiation. When the cancer returned in 2002, I had a second major surgery on my neck. My co-worker challenged me to run the Honolulu Marathon with him a year after I came out of the ICU. I said he was nuts, but I did it and swore I would never do another.

Today, I have finished seventy-five marathons and thirty-three ultramarathons, including eight 100-mile races. I am the 1,141st person to complete a marathon in all fifty states.

I am dealing with physical challenges from my military service, so I cannot run like I used to. Still, I can swim and bike, so I have decided to shift into triathlons to keep my competitive fire burning and, in fact, just recently completed an Ironman.

My mantra is “Stronger than cancer, faster than fear!”

Following a remarkable military career, what are you doing today, and why did you get into that field?

I spent the first decade after retiring from the military finding ways to support my fellow veterans. I developed a program within Goodwill to get veterans off the streets and back to work. I developed workforce training programs for employers who want to recruit and retain veteran employee talent, focusing on translating military skills into civilian terminology. In my last role, I helped veterans navigate the VA disability claims process and provided emergency financial assistance to veterans in need. September 2023 marks my retirement in this role.

I also received my USATF Coaching Certification and coached runners on the side. After coaching girls’ high school track in Hawaii, I moved into private coaching. I applied to be a coach for the US Olympic Team in 2016, 2020, and 2024 but was not selected.

In October, I started a new role in strategic planning for Destination Marathons, providing VIP travel experiences for runners at some of the more desired races in the world, such as Boston, Tokyo, London, and Berlin.

Tell us about your family and any other hobbies and interests besides your training.

I am married and have two daughters. My oldest teaches fifth through twelfth-grade band at Fair Grove High School outside Springfield, Missouri, and my youngest works in marketing for Syracuse University.

My other main hobby is high-stakes fantasy baseball. I won the 2013 National Fantasy Baseball Championship and remain addicted to baseball (go Cubs!). I am a season ticket holder with the Dayton Dragons, so I can see a lot of the young talent in the Reds’ system before they make it to the major leagues.

What has Phi Delta Theta meant to you, and what advice do you have for our current undergraduates?

This is easy: Phi Delta Theta means brotherhood, hands down. The bonds we make follow us later in life. I’m still in touch with many brothers from my time at OU and enjoy catching up at every opportunity.

I would advise the current members to remember that it’s worth seizing every moment, and if someone asks you if you’re willing to do something, the answer should be “yes!” Sometimes, the smallest of actions can trigger an amazing fountain of potential.

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