SAN ANTONIO (Army News Service, Dec. 27, 2011) -- Army Reserve Sgt. Melissa Neal, a former active-duty Soldier and current military wife and mother, added "Operation Rising Star" winner to her repertoire, Dec. 17, at Fort Sam Houston Theatre.

"I can't believe this -- from singing in the kitchen, to now I'm going to Hollywood," Neal said, after winning the military singing contest, which is similar to FOX television's "American Idol."

Kristine May Hills, 26, an Army wife from Camp Humphreys, South Korea, took second place in the competition. Varinia Herrera, a 39-year-old Army wife from Fort Carson, Colo., finished third. Winners were determined 50 percent by judges and 50 percent by online voting.

Neal, 27, won the local Operation Rising Star competition at U.S. Army Garrison in Ansbach, Germany, to earn a trip to Texas as one of 12 finalists. Her husband, CW2 Nathaniel Neal, is stationed in Illesheim, Germany.

Now Neal is headed to Los Angeles to attend the 54th Grammy Awards Show, party with the stars, and record a three-song demo compact disc at a professional recording studio. All of that is courtesy of Army Morale, Welfare and Recreation, as well as Operation Rising Star sponsor Veterans of Foreign Wars.

Neal won the competition by singing Miranda Lambert's "Gunpowder and Lead," Alexandra Burke's version of "Hallelujah," Journey's "Faithfully," and Michael Bublé and Simone's "Feeling Good." Simone served as one of three Operation Rising Star judges for three nights of finals week.

Simone, daughter of legendary vocalist Nina Simone, served in the Air Force before becoming a multi-talented artist. She substituted for Operation Rising Star judge Debra Byrd, who worked the opening show before returning to Los Angeles to resume vocal coach and arrangement duties for "American Idol."

Country music artist Michael Peterson and 12th Sergeant Major of the Army Jack L. Tilley were the other judges for the four-night event broadcast by the Pentagon Channel. Army Entertainment's Tim Higdon directed the show, with assistance from Joey Beebe.

No stranger to Operation Rising Star, Neal finished third as an active-duty corporal in the 2005 Military Idol local competition at Fort Knox, Ky.

"When I was little, I always knew that I kind of liked to sing," she said. "I think I was in fourth or fifth grade when my music teacher had me do the little kids' solo and I actually hit the note, so then I was like, oh, mom, I want to sing when I grow up."

Neal said she started taking voice lessons in junior high and also participated in show choirs and musicals through junior high and high school. She also took vocal lessons.

Serving five years on active duty, Neal said, better prepared her for life as an Army wife.

"It was really good for me being active duty," she explained. "Sometimes it's difficult as a spouse to sit back and understand because we just see the why are they coming home so late, why are they doing this, why are they staying late, why are they having formations, but that's just part of the Army, part of the military."

Neal, who served on active duty as a chemical operations specialist, has two sons -- Devin, 6, and Tanner, 2 -- to keep content. She's also majoring in criminal justice with a minor in psychology via online courses at the University of Maryland University College, along with working in civil affairs.

"We juggle it, but I like it busy," she said with a smile.

"Meeting the other 11 crazy individuals backstage," Neal said, was the highlight of Operation Rising Star finals week.

"Everybody I've met here -- the crew and the other contestants -- have just been really, really cool," she said. "Everything was just amazing. You got to meet people and see things that you would never get to see. This is an once-in-a-lifetime thing. Putting together a show of this magnitude was really cool to watch."

Although she saw the show unfold live before her eyes, Neal was stunned by the amount of online support she received from far and wide.

"We don't know how the judges went, but as far as voting, I was just really happy to see people leave me little messages like 'Wow, you were great last night' or 'Wow, I loved it,'" Neal said.

Online support came from Family, friends and fellow Soldiers around the world, Neal said.

"I'm getting support from Germany and all over the States," Neal said. "My friends who are deployed in Afghanistan have been trying to keep up with it. A lot of people on Facebook who I haven't talked to in a couple of years are posting things like 'I'm so proud of you' and 'I have been voting.'"

Neal said the support she's gotten from friends and family, as well as strangers has been overwhelming.

"It's just amazing to know that you have support and that people enjoy what you do," she said. "It's been a lot of fun."

(Tim Hipps writes for IMCOM Public Affairs)