FORT BELVOIR, Va. (Army News Service, Nov. 24, 2009) -- With her recently redeployed husband among those in the audience for the first time in the week-long competition, Lisa Pratt was named winner of the 2009 Operation Rising Star singing contest Nov. 20 at Wallace Theater.
Pratt, the 25-year-old wife of Army Capt. Matt Pratt, sang Carrie Underwood's "Last Name" just hours after the Soldier who gave her a new last name arrived from Fort Carson, Colo., to watch her perform.
"I want to thank my husband for being amazing and awesome in supporting me since I was in eighth grade," she said. "I've been with him ever since. And my mom and dad, who put me on the stage, and ..."
Pratt continued to credit her twin sister, who gave birth last week to her baby niece, and so on and so forth - just like at the Grammys. "Just all my family and friends who have supported me throughout this last 25 years, just getting me here," she concluded about a minute later.
Pratt prevailed over runner-up Capt. Donald Williamson, a chaplain at the U.S. Army Garrison in Bamberg, Germany, and third-place finisher Airman 1st Class Jamie Jarman of Andrews Air Force Base, Md., who qualified at Fort Leonard Wood, Mo.
Pratt earned an all-expenses-paid trip to Pasadena, Calif., where she will record a three-song CD at DMI Studios.
"It's been a long time coming," said Pratt, who finished runner-up at Fort Carson's 2008 Operation Rising Star qualifier and came back this year to win the whole event. "It's always been a dream of mine to record. Those three songs are what I wanted."
She also credited the other finalists in what she assessed as a great competition.
"All three of us have totally different styles, but all three are great, great entertainers," Pratt said. "Anybody could have won and I would have been happy because it's been such a great experience. I got critiqued by Debra Byrd and Michael Peterson, and that's all that matters, you know'"
Byrd is a vocal coach and arranger for the television shows American Idol and Canadian Idol. Peterson is a country music artist. They reunited this year as Operation Rising Star judges and were impressed with all of the finalists, as was retired Sgt. Maj. of the Army Jack L. Tilley, who has judged the competition every year.
"I think it's extraordinary," Byrd said. "I was sitting there thinking about the years to come and how this competition will really circulate and generate a lot of energy and more people will want to come be a part of it. I love watching the fighting spirit.
"Donald Williamson is so incredible on stage. Jamie really put down a great effort, as did Lisa, who won. Lisa just fought her way to the top. She was like a contender in a boxing match because her first song was like, 'yeah.' And then she dug her heels in and got better and better with her song choice, presentation, and she went for the high note, and her high notes are fantastic."
"Absolutely, it has gotten better every year," said Byrd, who took a one-year hiatus from judging the contest, formerly known as Military Idol. "It's very obvious, very noticeable, and I'm enjoying it. It has grown a lot, and I just want it to keep growing until it grows through the roof."
Tilley seconded that sentiment.
"It's unbelievable, the kind of talent that comes," he said. "The first year, we did it down at Fort Gordon and I thought it was really good, but each year you can see it getting better and better and better and better."
"The more people that see Operation Rising Star, the more people are going to support it. In fact, it's too bad they can't do a show at the Pentagon and do a show at every installation in the military because they are so good and so talented."
Tilley also thought Pratt improved immensely in each round of finals week.
"The first time I heard Lisa sing, I thought 'She's OK,'" Tilley said. "But as time went on, she got better and better and better. When she sang "God Bless America," she just knocked the socks off everybody. That was the perfect song for the perfect audience to motivate everybody, so I just think she's absolutely wonderful."
Pratt was more at ease during the final show knowing that her tanker was in the house. Matt was granted leave from Fort Carson at the last minute and arrived at Fort Belvoir in time to see his wife's final performance.
"He has not been able to hear me compete," Pratt said. Her husband redeployed from Iraq two months ago. "This is his first time. His commander let him off and his mom and dad helped pay for a flight. He got here at 2 o'clock today. He was in there with me while I was curling my hair and we were talking about it and he asked me what I was feeling, and I told him I was just happy to be here and get this far - that I'm OK with any result that happens tonight because I feel like I've come far beyond what I expected."
"I was like, if this is what I'm supposed to do, God is going to bless me with it," Pratt explained her strategy. "I went out there (at Fort Carson) and I sang and I won, and then coming here (to Fort Belvoir), I was like blinded. Again, I let God be in control and I just said, 'Whatever is supposed to happen, let it happen.' And I got further and further each time."
"I think I have tremendous friends and family that love me and want to see me pursue my career - my fans, I guess - by supporting me. I don't think that any of us is a better vocalist. I can't say that at all."
Second-place finisher Williamson was equally supportive of his competitors.
"I love Lisa," Williamson said. "From the things that I've learned from her this past week, this is kind of a dream for her. Not saying it wouldn't be a dream for me, but I already have a job. I'm a chaplain first. When you hear her, she's tried out for "American Idol," tried out for "America's Got Talent" - I think God made the outcome the way it needed to be."
"Plus, I've got a thousand dollars now to go on vacation in London next week with my family, so it works out great."
Williamson, however, also sensed an opportunity lost.
"It's kind of neat for the Chaplains Corps because chaplains right now are getting in the media because of everything that happened at Fort Hood and people are recognizing the need for chaplains because of the war, so wouldn't it be cool to have a singing chaplain to go around and sing for Soldiers and encourage them'"
"I love Jamie, but I really didn't want an Air Force girl to win an Army event," Williamson joked. "Air Force has already beaten us in football this year. I was joking with her about that. But you don't know how it's going to go. The judges have their say and then it all comes down to votes."
Williamson still had plenty of reasons to celebrate; the finals were held on his 40th birthday.
"My family is here," he said. His brother traveled from Connecticut with his wife and two children, and his mother and father made a 12-hour drive from Georgia. "I haven't seen my brother face-to-face in almost three years, so this is the best birthday ever. My wife and kids are still in Germany, but I get to see them tomorrow."
Jarman said she felt like an underdog not only because she is in the Air Force, but because she had the least amount of vocal training among the finalists.
"I haven't really had much training singing," said Jarman, 22. "I just do it because I love to."
Peterson, however, offered Jarman assistance if she wants to pursue singing as a career.
"I kind of froze a little bit," Jarman said of his offer. "I love to sing, but you don't give it much thought being in the military. I signed a contract and figured this is how it's going to be for awhile. But since I've been in the military, the opportunities and doors that have opened for singing have been tremendous. So I'm thinking: 'What do I want to do with this'' Hopefully, people will contact me because I had the time of my life the past couple of weeks and I think I can only get better because I haven't had that much experience. ... I just sing from the heart."
Pratt, meantime, will soon be singing in a studio.
"I get to make a CD," she said. "I get to learn all the bells and whistles of being an artist, and that's what I'm looking forward to."
Pratt also yearns to serve as an ambassador for Army Entertainment Division.
"I would love to, absolutely," she said. "I just graduated. I'm a single housewife, no kids, unemployed at the moment - so I'm ready. Just let me know when and where - I'm there.
"I would love to make this a career. I love performing. As long as I'm on a stage, I'm happy."
Pratt also learned a lot about military life during the week-long competition.
"I learned about the Army Family Covenant this week by example," she said. "Everybody came together because we all kind of relate with each other. I feel like this week everybody here working backstage, off stage, on stage, showed that covenant to me by just being supportive of each other. That's what you have to do in the military because you know what that person standing next to you is going through because you've been through it."
Pratt is a native of Houston, Texas, who graduated from Lawton (Okla.) Christian School and the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, where she majored in visual performing arts and minored in vocal. She celebrated her victory by singing Miley Cyrus' hit "The Climb."