By Sara Netzley
October 15, 2019 at 11:07 PM EDT

Severed appendages and homeless vets take center stage in this week’s NCIS entry when a riderless horse gallops through Arlington Cemetery. In its stirrups are the traditional empty boots from a funeral procession — except these boots contain a pair of severed feet.

This discovery temporarily frees the Young Turks from Vance’s punishment for lying during the Ziva affair: a six-day exile organizing the subterranean evidence garage, sans cell phones.

A dog tag tucked into one severed foot identifies the remains as belonging to Marine Sgt. David Holtzman, who was honorably discharged in 1979 and had diabetic ulcers on the bottoms of his feet. This leads the team to the VA, where they encounter Dr. Erica Bell, who’s defeated by the long hours and lack of resources she’s working with, especially because the bill that would appropriate funding for six veterans’ departments has been stalled in Congress for months. She tells them that the unclaimed bodies of the homeless are cremated and stored in cardboard boxes in a cabinet in the morgue until they can receive a military burial.

Now the team heads to one of the local homeless encampments, where they encounter Kyle Freeman, a volunteer with Mercy Point Mobile Care who’s providing healthcare to the homeless vets. They also encounter Melissa Canon, host of the podcast TruthBomb, who’s there to feed her six million followers information about homelessness (but not an interview with NCIS, thanks to a refusal from Gibbs and McGee).

Sonja Flemming/CBS

Although neither Kyle nor Melissa is helpful, encampment resident Barney Williams overhears and takes Gibbs to Holtzman’s sleeping spot. From there, they move to the trash area and find Holtzman’s footless body alongside dead veteran Norma Jean, whose hands have been removed. Although Holtzman died of diabetes complications, Norma Jean was killed by a blow to the head likely by whoever was removing his feet.

Now that the media is providing nonstop coverage of the Military Mutilator who’s killing and stalking the homeless vet population, outcry over vets who slip through the system starts to grow. Yet Vance still wants the punishment trio to pull double-duty on solving the case and organizing the evidence garage. Okay, but does he really want irate, distracted, overworked investigators working a massively high-profile case? That makes zero sense!

The trio begs Kasie for leads to chase down to keep them out of the evidence basement, so Bishop heads out to find the owner of the riderless horse, while McGee and Torres return to the VA to see what the holdup is on medical records.

The horse, delightfully named No Sprinkles, is owned by a retired naval commander who suggests that No Sprinkles was stolen the night before by one of the people who board their horses at his stable, while at the VA, Dr. Ball’s struggle with the nonfunctional computer network is eclipsed by the discovery of Norma Jean’s hands, tacked up to the cabinet doors and pointing accusatory fingers at the boxed remains of the homeless vets. The message becomes clear: Veterans should be honored and not forgotten in cabinets.

So who’s doing it? Sloane’s spent time with Barney and says that if she didn’t like him so much, she’d think it was him. He refuses to talk about his military background but spends his time writing down other vets’ stories in his journal. She and Gibbs review Barney’s information in her office, where she kicks off her shoes and offers him her reading glasses. It’s quite cozy.

Barney left his unit when his mother was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, and he used all of their money to care for her until she died, so Gibbs and Sloane return to the camp to talk more with Barney. There, they learn from Mercy Point Mobile Kyle that Barney was just attacked and had his journal stolen. Yet Barney refuses to accept any special treatment for his safety, so Gibbs and Sloane agree to take turns standing watch over the whole camp.

That night, Barney confesses to Gibbs that he lives with survivor’s guilt and even suicidal thoughts because members of his unit died in Helmand Province while he was caring for his mother. Gibbs says he recognizes all of those feelings and tells him that things improved when he accepted the fact that he deserved to exist.

Their moment is interrupted by a commotion, and when Barney and Gibbs give chase, they find that Melissa the TruthBomb podcaster eavesdropped on their conversation, found it powerful, and wanted to share it. Weirdly, she offers zero pushback when Gibbs confiscates her audio recorder.

The next day, the Young Turks watch as Congress unanimously approves the stalled veterans’ spending bill during an emergency vote driven by the outcry over the military mutilations. And as they do, they start to wonder: who benefits from this passage?

They pull Dr. Ball in for questioning, but she points out that a) she’s scared of horses and b) she doesn’t personally benefit. But you know who does? Kyle, whose family owns horses and Mercy Point Mobile, the only private company that benefits from the newly passed funding.

Gibbs is still at the homeless encampment, frustrated that Barney’s still brushing off his military background in conversation with the other vets at the encampment, when he gets a text on his flip phone pointing him toward Kyle. Gibbs turns to the men and women around him and asks them to have his six, and then he approaches Kyle while Sloane films on her phone. Kyle tries to run and gets cornered by each of the vets one by one, who defiantly give their name and rank, unwilling to be lost and forgotten by an underfunded, uncaring system.

The last of them to step up is Barney, who introduces himself as “Marine lance corporal.” Was it a predictable character arc for him? Yes, but that doesn’t make it less effective to watch. Oh, and when Kyle takes a swing at him, Barney lays him out with an “oorah.”

Back in the basement, lead evidence tech Terry catches the punishment trio watching the now-viral Kyle-punch video and busts their chops for losing the box of prepaid, ready-to-use cellphones that were in the car Gibbs and Ziva carjacked in the premiere and that were earmarked to be destroyed. Then Vance steps up to tell Terry that he’ll handle his three agents personally.

And Vance did this because he gave the box to Gibbs to hand out at the camp. You see, VA benefits are easier to access with a phone and an email address, and these prepaid devices can help the encampment residents find care. This happy ending becomes even happier when Barney joins podcaster Melissa to tell his own story in the hopes that it will help someone else.

Stray shots

  • I enjoyed the fact that Henry Hoss owned horses almost as much as I enjoyed homeless vet Francesca referring to Gibbs’s hair shimmering in the moonlight and Palmer potentially gaining the nickname “Harry Potter.”
  • Which was more horrific this week: the ulcerous severed feet or the talking clown doll? JK it’s obviously the haunted clown doll.
  • It’s nice to see NCIS continuing its tradition of highlighting real-world programs (and sometimes real-world problems) with its massive platform, isn’t it?