Skip to main content
Arts & Entertainment

Why are Marines working unpaid shifts as security guards at California concerts?

Illustration by Lu Chen

Thanks to their depiction in Hollywood movies and military recruitment ads, members of the United States Marine Corps have a reputation for being highly trained and ready to ship off to the front lines at a moment’s notice. But at San Francisco’s inaugural Portola Festival this past September, PJ Lusk, a Marine stationed at Camp Pendleton, found himself corralling concertgoers as a volunteer security guard.

Though some Portola attendees expressed surprise and concern upon learning that U.S. Marines were providing crowd control at the event, it is actually a common practice—at least when it comes to live music events staffed by C.I. Security Specialists, a private firm that regularly brings in on-duty Marines to work as volunteers at events it staffs, according to multiple retired service members and a Marine Corps official.  

These Marines said that in return for their free labor, the Southern California security company donates money for tickets to upscale galas celebrating the anniversary of the establishment of the U.S. Marine Corps, which falls on the day before Veterans Day every year. For their volunteer services, the Marines get free or discounted tickets to these events, known as “birthday balls,” which can be as pricey as $300 a pop.

The arrangement raises serious legal, ethical and safety questions, according to a concert industry insider and a professor of military law. The latter worried specifically about enlisted members of the armed services providing volunteer labor at large music festivals—especially since two of the Marines interviewed for this story indicated that they did not have a state-required security guard license at the time they volunteered for CISS.

The Standard first learned of the practice after discovering that C.I. Security Specialists (CISS) had provided its services at Goldenvoice’s Portola Music Festival in San Francisco in September. Subsequent interviews with Marines shed more light on the scope of the practice and revealed that CISS also sent volunteer Marines to the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival, Goldenvoice’s flagship festival, as well as a heavy metal festival in Sacramento.

Retired Marine and Benicia resident Warren Johnsen said that when he served between 2017 and 2022, around 100 members of his unit volunteered to work security with CISS at concerts and festivals. In return, CISS donated to the 2019 Marine Corps Birthday Ball at Bally’s Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas. Several members of his unit received subsidized tickets.

Former five-year Marine Warren Johnsen poses at his home on Monday, Nov. 7, 2022 in Benicia. | Paul Kuroda for The Standard

Other past volunteers described long shifts and teenage service members responsible for the safety of raucous concertgoers twice their age. Three active duty and retired Marines interviewed said they served as volunteer security with CISS at three separate music festivals across the state, including Coachella.

At least two of the former Marines who spoke to The Standard for this story were not licensed to work as security guards in California at the time. State law requires uniformed security personnel to hold a license that is commonly referred to as a “guard card.”

Peter Fournier, a public information officer for the state agency that issues security guard licenses, said that unless Marines are acting as federal employees, they must be licensed.

Contacted by The Standard, CISS management acknowledged that the company employs on-duty Marines to staff events but denied using them as volunteers, insisting that all workers are compensated.

Attendees at the Portola Music Festival at Pier 80 in San Francisco on Saturday, September 24, 2022. | Sarah Holtz/The Standard | Source: Sarah Holtz/The Standard

A Common Occurrence

Lusk took a bus up from Camp Pendleton, just north of San Diego, to volunteer with CISS for two 12-hour shifts at Portola. CISS was one of several companies hired to work crowd control for the festival. On Sunday, Sept. 25, Lusk was stationed in front of the warehouse stage, where audience members had jumped the barricades the night before.

Capt. David Mancilla, a communications officer at Camp Pendleton, said Marine Corps members from his installation often volunteer at large festivals in California. “It is common for our volunteers to assist in security-related support as well as provide general event assistance as predetermined by the event organizers and the individual Marine unit,” Mancilla said. He also noted that the Marine Corps provides meals and transportation for the on-duty Marines working the events. 

When asked specifically about using unpaid Marines from Camp Pendleton, a representative for CISS maintained that the enlistees are not volunteers. “That officer might have been trying to flex,” said Alex Carrasco, vice president of business development at the firm. “Our personnel are all paid employees.”

Warren Johnsen, former five-year Marine, shows his military regalia at his Benicia home on Nov. 7, 2022. | Paul Kuroda for The Standard

Job Cuellar, a Marine veteran, said he volunteered as a security officer at Coachella in 2022. Formerly stationed at Camp Pendleton, Cuellar said he worked three shifts at the festival—all of them longer than 12 hours—managing crowd control and dispatching EMTs at the concert, which ran for three days across seven stages and drew around 750,000 attendees. Cuellar estimated that of approximately 200 CISS officers at Coachella, about half were volunteer Marines.

Johnsen—who was a Marine infantryman stationed at the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center in San Bernardino County, also called Twentynine Palms, until March of this year—has a similar story. He said he volunteered in 2021 alongside around 100 active Marines with CISS at the Aftershock heavy metal music festival in Sacramento.  

Though they both wore CISS uniforms at the respective festivals, both Cuellar and Johnsen said they were not required to obtain security officer licenses to volunteer for CISS. 

Professor Richard Rosen, director of the Center for Military Law & Policy at Texas Tech University School of Law, said that if these servicemembers were on-duty and volunteering for a private company, they would have been subject to the state law requiring them to hold a guard card.

Rosen added there is also a potential federal issue with this arrangement, depending on whether the Marines in question were truly volunteering or being “volun-told” to serve as security guards, meaning that those recruits would be following the orders of their commanding officer rather than voluntarily engaging in an act of community service.

Job Cuellar (right) and two other active-duty volunteer Marines take a break at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival in Indio in April 2022. | Courtesy Job Cuellar

Johnsen noted that CISS recruits volunteers from different units—or groups of service members within the Marine Corps command structure—on a rotating basis. Johnsen added that in instances when the company cannot draw a sufficient number of volunteers for an upcoming event, unit leadership usually selects younger recruits to fill capacity. “If they don’t have enough, they’re going to expect you to do it. They’re going to be like, ‘Aren’t you doing this? You’re going to do this,’” Johnsen said. 

Many of the recruits Johnsen worked with at the Sacramento metal festival were teenagers. “I mean, most people in the military generally are straight out of high school,” Johnsen said. “It was a bunch of people in their early 20s, maybe late teens, holding back all these 30- to 40-year-old massive dudes.”

Both retired servicemen said that once a Marine volunteers for CISS, they have the opportunity to join the company’s payroll at future events. 

The California Department of Consumer Affairs’ business filing for CISS lists two individuals—Adrian Potinga and Jairo Castillo—as the company’s principals. Potinga and Castillo did not respond to multiple requests for comment. 

According to the CISS website, the company has supplied Coachella with security officers at least since 2018. It also notes that CISS personnel “draw from their professional backgrounds in law enforcement, military and security.”

After initially speaking with The Standard and insisting that all CISS personnel are paid employees, the security firm did not respond to further requests for comment on the Marine Corps’ involvement at Aftershock, Coachella and Portola.

General view of the crowd at the Sahara stage during the 2022 Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival in Indio on April 23, 2022. | Timothy Norris/Getty Images

A Questionable Practice

Another Planet Entertainment, a large concert promoter that operates the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium and the Castro Theatre among other Bay Area venues, does not contract with CISS or use any unpaid volunteers as security personnel, according to Margaret Casey, a project manager with the Berkeley-based company. She said she was surprised that active-duty Marines volunteered as security guards at Goldenvoice festivals. “Do you really need Marines for that?” Casey asked.

Sherry Wasserman, president of Another Planet Entertainment, said she’s not aware of this practice and declined to comment.

Murf Reeves, who has worked at live music events like the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival for several years, said he’s never heard of Marines serving as security officers. “I like the idea of a serious security team, but Marines are trained soldiers,” he said. “That is a little scary.” 

A representative from AEG Presents, Goldenvoice’s parent company, was unavailable for comment. Danny Wimmer Presents, the promoter behind Aftershock, did not respond to requests for comment.

Outside Lands attendees scream along to Rico Nasty’s music at the Twin Peaks Stage on Oct. 30, 2021. Another Planet Entertainment, the festival’s promoter, maintains that it doesn’t enlist volunteer Marines as security guards. | Camille Cohen/The Standard | Source: Camille Cohen for The Standard

The Standard tried to determine if the use of U.S. Marines as volunteer security guards is a common practice at units in other parts of the country. While it’s unclear whether other private firms work with volunteer Marines, one USMC unit in Pensacola, Florida, does not authorize its personnel to provide guarding or security support in a volunteer capacity. Because USMC regulations vary from unit to unit, this rule has no bearing on a unit elsewhere. 

On-duty Marines are allowed to seek outside employment, but recruiting volunteer Marines to serve as security officers does raise legal questions. Professor Richard Rosen told The Standard he had never heard of Marines employed or volunteering as security officers. “If they are employed as security officers, they should have the approval of their commander,” Rosen said.

Cuellar and Johnsen said they managed festivalgoers who were under the influence of drugs and alcohol, monitored mosh pits and dealt with various other crowd-control issues throughout their respective shifts at Coachella and Aftershock. Given that situations between audience members and festival security have been known to escalate, Rosen said he would be concerned about liability in the event of an altercation. 

Fans crowd surf as Pierce the Veil performs at the 2022 When We Were Young Festival at the Las Vegas Festival Grounds on Oct. 23, 2022, in Las Vegas, Nevada. The following weekend, during Knocked Loose’s set, an attendee was knocked out in the mosh pit, forcing the performance to pause momentarily as security addressed the issue. | Shy McGrath/WireImage

“What if they get hurt, or they hurt someone? If the Marine is injured, he or she could be unable to perform his or her military duties,” Rosen said, adding that if an off-duty Marine or audience member was injured, the liability might fall on that service member. “The Marines might face personal liability unless the private security company has insurance that will indemnify the Marines.”

When asked why he made the decision to volunteer for CISS, Cuellar made no mention of liability or legal questions. As he tells it, he took the gig at Coachella because he had never been to a concert before. He said he didn’t expect to be dispatching EMT and supervising a team of seven guards by the end of the weekend. 

“I went in super blind,” he said. 

Nick Veronin contributed to this story.

Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this article used the words “soldier” and “Marine” interchangeably. The United States Marine Corps prefers to refer to its uniformed personnel as “Marines.”