ANSBACH, Germany -- Sgt. Melissa Neal, a reservist assigned to the 457th Civil Affairs Battalion, here, won the 2011 Operation Rising Star competition at Fort Sam Houston Theatre, Dec. 17.

"I can't believe this," Neal said. "From singing in the kitchen ... now I'm going to Hollywood."

During the competition Neal sang Miranda Lambert's "Gunpowder and Lead," Alexandra Burke's version of "Hallelujah," and "Feeling Good" by Michael Buble, but it was her rendition of "Faithfully" by Journey that won her top honors with $1,000 cash and an all-expenses-paid recording package to Los Angeles.

Neal will produce a three-song demo CD with EMI Music, which owns Capitol Records, Virgin Records, Blue Note, Manhattan Records and Chordant. The recording package is valued at over $18,000. In addition, she'll attend the Grammy Awards in February, and mingle with the stars at the after party.

This was by no means Neal's first time on stage.

"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 took voice lessons in junior high and performed with show choirs and sang in musicals through high school. She stopped taking voice lessons when she joined the Army at age 18, but music was still a big part of her life.

"I love to sing and always feel like music is such a release. When I am having a bad day or in a certain mood, I always have music to turn to because it always helps me get through any issues in my life," she said.

Neal said serving five years on active duty as a chemical operations specialist better prepared her for life as an Army wife. She's currently majoring in criminal justice with a minor in psychology via online courses at the University of Maryland University College, in addition to working with the Army Reserve and raising her sons, Devin, 6, and Tanner, 2, with her husband, Chief Warrant Officer 2 Nathaniel Neal.

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

Neal said meeting the other 11 finalists backstage 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."

She said her win has been so impacting because it has brought so many people together, resulting in her votes increasing with every show, because people kept rallying together to show their support for her.

"The support that I've gotten from my friends and my family … has been overwhelming. It's just amazing to know that you have support and that people enjoy what you do. It's been a lot of fun."

Editor's Note: Ron Toland U.S. Army Garrison Ansbach Public Affairs, contributed reporting.