PASADENA, Calif., May 17, 2011 -- As a teenager in Philadelphia, Operation Rising Star champion Melissa Gomez dreamed that she would sing her way out of the neighborhood surrounding Samuel Fels High School, which had no football or basketball team to cheer.

Little did she know the Army would provide the way to go.

"The recruiter was trying to get me recruited for so many months, and I kept telling her, 'Nope, nope, nope,'" Gomez said. "Then she found out I liked to sing, I guess, and she asked: 'Have you ever heard of the Soldier Show'' She showed me a tape, and I said: 'Where do I sign''

"She couldn't believe she recruited me based on a Soldier Show tape," Gomez said with a boisterous laugh. "I looked at my mom, and my mom was like, 'Yep, she's going in.'"

"That lady worked so hard, and I told her: 'All you had to do was say I could sing and that would have been over.'"

Gomez attributes the path of her adult life to the Army.

"I would have never been a Gomez," said Melissa, who met husband Louis at her first duty station. "My last name was Santana - hated to give that one up. It's a musical name, that's all it is. I always used to say 'Melissa Santana - no relation' because that was the second question out of people's mouths."

Her father, Orlando Santana, is a musician. Her younger brother, Tony Orlando Santana, plays Latin percussion instruments. Melissa evolved from a timbales-playing dreamer to a singer living the life of an Army wife turned recording artist.

As a 17-year-old junior in high school, Gomez enlisted with the Army in a delayed entry program.

"In basic training, they would let me go sing," she said. "I did a concert with a Spanish group that came to Fort Jackson."

Getting released from her command to tour with the Soldier Show, however, was not as easy, so Gomez sought every military singing opportunity she could find.

While stationed at Fort Lewis, Wash., in 1999, Gomez began researching Army musical opportunities and found the MWR-sponsored "Stars of Tomorrow" program, but could not get released from duty to travel to Fort Belvoir, Va., site of the finals.

Within a year, she was married, pregnant and a member of the Army Reserve.

"When I came back is when I really started doing stuff," said Gomez, who returned to active duty in 2003 and competed in the Stars of Tomorrow competition at Fort Sam Houston, Texas. She earned a trip to the finals at Fort Belvoir, where she sang a "Last Dance" medley.

In 2004, Gomez toured installations throughout the United States and Korea for five months with a seven-Soldier USA Express ensemble, but was pulled from the group to report to Korea for military policeman duty.

In 2005, then Sgt. Gomez became a full-time Army mom because "I didn't want to keep leaving my kids behind."

In 2006, Gomez appeared in a regional television show called "Gimme the Mic" in Raleigh, N.C., which helped maintain her singing dream. Two years later, she found her niche as an Army wife with "Operation Rising Star," the military's version of "American Idol."

"I always look out for Army Entertainment opportunities and I knew that it was Military Idol before, so I knew I wasn't allowed to be in it - but then I saw an advertisement that said it was open to spouses," Gomez said. "So I tried out in 2008 and placed second that year [in the local competition] at Fort Bragg.

"I am happy that they let us enter the competition," she said. "I know a lot of times Soldiers are so busy and they have a mission, but I really think they are going the right way with this to bring the spouses in and the family members.

"We even had children on the show," she said. "I thought that was just awesome that they got to see what MWR was doing for them."

In 2010, Gomez represented Fort Bragg, N.C., at the finals and sang Matt Moran's "The Dreamer" en route to winning the "Operation Rising Star" grand prize of a trip to Hollywood to record a three-song demo CD at Firehouse Recording Studios in Old Pasadena.

"I always laugh because I say, 'I didn't quite make it to the Soldier Show, but I did everything else Army Entertainment Division had to do,'" Gomez said.